WASHINGTON ― Reports Tuesday that fired FBI Director James Comey’s notes say President Donald Trump pressured him to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn sparked another wave of shock and outrage on Capitol Hill ― and even talk of impeachment among the usually reserved.
The revelations, reportedly based on a memo Comey wrote after meeting with the president in February, pushed Republicans into a familiar posture: trying to avoid Trump’s mess without actually doing anything about it.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chair of the committee tasked with investigating whether Flynn or other Trump associates were linked to Russian efforts to influence the election, insisted the burden of proof was on The New York Times, which broke the story, to publish the Comey memo ― even though he can subpoena it.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) wouldn’t comment on the Times report, but scolded reporters for pursuing the “wrong” story. There’s a “weasel in here somewhere,” he said, referring to whoever leaked the previous day’s Trump scandal about the president sharing secret intelligence with Russian officials.
“This person is a traitor, they’ve committed treason, and they ought to go to prison,” Risch said.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a Trump ally, declined to comment, except to say there have been a lot of “misleading reports.”
Congressional Republicans have grown accustomed to comments like these. With Trump seeming to tumble into a fresh scandal every few days, his supporters in the House and Senate have mastered ways of expressing disappointment, but doing nothing. When Flynn was forced to resign four weeks into the new administration over secret discussions with Russian officials, congressional Republicans were concerned but stood by the president.
When Trump’s nominees to lead the departments of treasury, and health and human services misled Congress during confirmation hearings, GOP members were bothered but stood by the president.
And when the Washington Post reported on Monday night that Trump shared “highly classified” intelligence with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, they were shocked and dismayed but stood by the president.
Through all the expressions of GOP concern, nothing much has changed.
While Trump ally Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) conceded that the White House appears to be in a “downward spiral,” other GOP lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appear troubled only by the unending drama and nuisance created by such scandals.
McConnell has remained unwavering in his support for the president, dismissing calls for a select committee, an independent commission or a special prosecutor to investigate possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) didn’t skip a beat when Trump fired Comey, adamantly defending the move. Trump “lost patience,” he said, and people in the Justice Department had “lost confidence” in the FBI director.
There’s no denying that months of bombshells have hampered the GOP’s agenda, creating distractions and making elected officials a little slower to offer public support. But rather than distancing themselves from Trump, Republicans are gently expressing tempered criticisms and the occasional admonishment, doing little in the way of constraining the administration or conducting effective oversight.
That leaves open the question of whether there will come a point when Republicans would actually bolt from the president.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, an election prognosticator for House, Senate and presidential races, said the breaking point is “to be determined.”
“If you’re a Republican senator and you’re critical of Trump, you’re critical of someone your own base of supporters is still pretty supportive of,” Kondik said. A recent Crystal Ball poll showed Trump’s approval among his own voters at 93 percent.
“They are supposed to be in the honeymoon period, and it’s not like Republicans in the Senate have been 100-percent glowing about his presidency,” Kondik said. “Now, how much of that is window dressing and actual practical opposition remains to be seen. Republican senators don’t want to kneecap their president unless they absolutely have to.”
Kondik said he sees only about three Senate Republicans who really stand to lose by not breaking with Trump ― Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.), Susan Collins (Maine), and Cory Gardner (Colo.). All three represent states won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton last year. But even those three senators have kept their Trump criticisms abstract.
Collins told reporters on Monday she’d like to have one “crisis-free day.” But she has yet to call for a special prosecutor, and votes the party line the majority of the time.
Party loyalty, of course, is not confined to Republican ranks. In the age of hyper-partisanship, everyone from voters to politicians gravitates toward party identification and ideological symmetry.
Trump seemed primed to challenge this order, if only for his immense unpopularity and the seemingly endless wave of scandals that have engulfed his administration.
Numerous news reports have predicted Republicans are about to break from the president. But most have chosen to simply create non-substantive distance.
Corker is a perfect example. A close confidante of the Trump White House, he acknowledged after Flynn’s departure that the “dribble” of information about the administration’s relationship with Russia was making it impossible to get work done. And when Comey was fired, Corker said the administration “understand(s) that they’ve created a really difficult situation for themselves to move beyond this in a way that gives the American people faith and Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate faith.”
But Corker wouldn’t say if a special prosecutor was needed, or if the Senate should request more briefings, or form a select committee.
When it comes to voting, Republicans have been in lockstep with Trump. That’s not just because the administration has given them a steady offering of conservative legislation. It’s because breaking with Trump would make it harder to enact their own agenda.
“If the president is unpopular, it makes their agenda unpopular,” Kondik said.
A well-placed former GOP leadership aide disagreed that a “smoking gun” would do Trump in, saying instead that the growing pile of scandal would eventually cause Republicans to make a run for it.
“There is no one thing that will be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back,’” the longtime leadership aide said, speaking anonymously in order to provide a more candid assessment. “It’s cumulative: Firing the FBI director, sharing information with the Russians ... it all just adds up over time.
“If this keeps up, you’re going to see more distance between Hill Republicans and the White House, particularly in the Senate,” the former GOP aide continued. “Every House member has to face voters next year ― but few senators are in a vulnerable situation.”
For now, Republicans appear content with occasionally acknowledging that the White House did a bad thing, but nothing more.
As McConnell said Tuesday, he’d be happy with “a little less drama from the White House.”