By Elise Viebeck, Karoun Demirjian and Mike DeBonis,
Congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election will continue despite the Justice Department’s decision to appoint a special counsel to oversee a separate probe, lawmakers said late Wednesday.
Republicans and Democrats welcomed the decision to appoint Robert Mueller, a former prosecutor who served as FBI director from 2001 to 2013, but said their own investigations would proceed without delay.
“Our task hasn’t changed,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told reporters late Wednesday.
“This is a good decision,” he said of Mueller’s appointment. “By having someone like Bob Mueller head whatever investigation assures the American people that there’s no undue influence — be it here or be it at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue or within the Justice Department or FBI.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein will brief the full Senate Thursday on Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey — an event that triggered a wave of controversy for the White House starting last week.
Congressional Republicans had spent much of Wednesday increasing pressure on the administration to produce records related to the latest string of controversies involving Trump, amid flagging confidence in the White House and a growing sense that scandal is overtaking Trump’s presidency.
Attention on Capitol Hill is now expected to focus on when Comey might testify publicly before lawmakers.
Comey, who was leading an investigation into Russia before Trump fired him last week, wrote in a memo that Trump had pressured him to drop an investigation against former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn earlier this year.
In a nod to strong interest from lawmakers, Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner (Va.) asked Comey on Wednesday to testify in both open and closed sessions.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) also invited Comey to speak at a hearing next Wednesday.
Praising Mueller’s “impeccable credentials,” Chaffetz said his panel’s efforts to probe Trump will continue.
“We’re still moving full steam ahead,” Chaffetz he told The Washington Post.
“We will still want to see the memos and I’m still waiting to hear from director and confirm his appearance at the hearing,” he said.
A handful of Republican lawmakers from swing districts praised the Justice Department’s decision.
“It is evidence that this administration is taking the Russia probe seriously,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) told MSNBC.
“The fact that they have chosen someone like Director Mueller, someone who enjoys respect from both Democrats and Republicans. … this is something every American should be celebrating today.”
“Right thing to do and the right choice,” tweeted Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who worked at the Justice Department while Mueller was FBI director.
Democrats also praised the choice.
“Mueller is somebody who I think will do an honest job. He needs to do a very vigorous job because the allegations are extraordinarily serious with ramifications for our country,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.
The announcement took place against the backdrop of mounting controversy for the Trump White House. The president and his aides are now grappling with the repercussions of Comey’s firing, as well as the revelation Trump disclosed highly classified information to Russian officials and pressured Comey to drop an investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had broken his silence on the Comey affair Wednesday to say that lawmakers “need to hear from him as soon as possible.”
“I think we need to hear from him about whatever he has to say about the events of recent days, as soon as possible, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, in public,” McConnell said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees asked the FBI to hand over Comey’s notes about his communications with the White House and senior Justice Department officials related to the Russia investigation.
Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight Committee leaders also asked the White House to provide any records of interactions between Trump officials and Comey.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was careful to strike an evenhanded tone Wednesday, saying congressional committees would continue to conduct oversight “regardless of what party is in the White House” but seeming to dismiss some concerns that have arisen in the wake of news about a memo by Comey suggesting that Trump had pressured him to drop the Flynn investigation.
Ryan also questioned why Comey didn’t “take action” after his meeting with Trump.
“There’s clearly a lot of politics being played here,” Ryan said. “It is obvious there are some people out there who want to harm the president.”
Republicans have been more candid over the last two days in describing their concerns about Trump.
On Tuesday night, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) compared the current situation to the Watergate scandal while speaking at an International Republican Institute dinner.
“We’ve seen this movie before. I think it’s reaching the point where it’s of Watergate size and scale and a couple of other scandals that you and I have seen,” McCain told Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
“There’s a lot here that’s really scary,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Wednesday morning in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “It’s obviously inappropriate for any president to be trying to interfere with an investigation.”
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said he believes “changes are needed at the White House” to such a degree that he is calling for a Democrat to replace Comey as head of the FBI.
Republican leaders had managed to fend off calls for a special prosecutor or independent commission to take over the Russia investigations. But signs of disagreement were increasing within the party.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, said the collective political fallout from the past week “will make it difficult” for Republicans to resist backing some sort of independent investigative body.
“We may have to move in that direction,” Dent said Wednesday at a forum moderated by Center Forward, a moderate Democratic organization.
Collins, a member of the Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) reissued calls Wednesday for the Justice Department to consider appointing a special prosecutor to probe Russia’s election interference.
And Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), one of two House Republicans to endorse an independent investigation of the Comey matter, joined Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) in saying that if the details reported this week are true, they could be grounds for impeaching Trump.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said reports about Trump pressuring Comey and sharing classified intelligence with the Russians are inaccurate. He did not directly answer whether Trump supports Comey testifying before Congress.
“The president is confident in the events that he has maintained and he wants the truth in these investigations to get to the bottom of the situation,” Spicer said in a gaggle on Air Force One. “There are two investigations going on in the House and Senate and he wants to get to the bottom of this.”
Democrats blasted House Republicans on Wednesday for doing little to probe Trump’s potential ties to Russia.
“They do as little as humanly possible just to claim that they’re doing something,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee.
“Our committee should already be conducting robust and transparent investigations,” said Cummings, who joined 32 other Democrats on Tuesday night in calling for his panel to partner with the Judiciary Committee on a new probe of Trump’s White House.
“Speaker Ryan has shown he has zero — zero, zero — appetite,” the Democrat said.
Democrats’ priority had been advancing a bill from Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) creating a bipartisan congressional commission to investigate Russia’s cyberintrusions, how the intelligence community handled the matter and the president’s potential involvement.
The Democrats were hoping to file a discharge petition — which requires the signatures of a majority of all House members — to compel GOP leaders to schedule a vote on the proposal. But the effort has not gathered much Republican support: As of Wednesday, The Post found only five GOP senators and 10 House Republicans open to some kind of independent investigation.
Republicans blocked another attempt to force a vote Wednesday on the House floor.
Many rank-and-file Republicans dismissed the controversies out of hand.
“It’s being made a bigger deal than what it is,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) said, maintaining that leaks to the media were a more serious matter.
Trump “doesn’t fit the model of a typical politician, and that’s what the real issue is here. He’s a business guy, and he wants to get things done.”
Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.) also was unperturbed by the latest reports. Back in Alabama, he said, there is “a lot of frustration that they’re not allowing him to do his job.”
In an interview with KIDO Talk Radio, based in Boise, Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), who recently launched a bid for Idaho governor, said the Trump administration is making “many of the same mistakes” as the Obama administration.
It is unclear what Labrador believes took place during the Obama administration that is equivalent to Trump pressuring Comey or disclosing highly classified information to the Russians.
“They keep making things up, and they keep saying things that are not true,” Labrador said of the media, accusing journalists of being “complicit” with Democrats and the Russian government in trying to undermine American democracy.
“We need to be so careful about what we say about what a president does … Be very careful with what you say about the president,” he said.
Carol D. Leonnig, Ed O’Keefe, Amber Phillips, Kelsey Snell, Sean Sullivan and David Weigel contributed to this report.