They sidestepped it. They expressed alarm but not outrage. They said Congress should consider taking action. But they cautioned against moving too aggressively.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s decision to charge three former officials from President Trump’s campaign sparked an array of responses from congressional Republicans Monday. But there was a common theme: They saw little to gain in venturing further into a quickly expanding political thicket.
Instead, GOP leaders appeared eager to move past the explosive revelations, avoid further inflaming tensions with Trump and refocus on their legislative agenda, tried to brush aside calls from Democrats and a handful of their Republican colleagues to use their powers to protect Mueller’s probe from interference by the president. They also avoided discussing the substance of the charges Mueller filed.
Rank-and-file Republican lawmakers who have raised alarm bells about the president’s judgment in recent weeks continued to hold out for the possibility of passing legislation to head off potential meddling into the investigation by Trump. But few, if any, spoke with great urgency about taking those steps, convinced that Trump was not preparing to fire Mueller imminently.
Some Republicans expressed more concern than others about what could come next in Mueller’s months-long inquiry into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign during the election. And there was disagreement about the merits of the investigation.
But by day’s end, Republicans had mostly settled on a strategy in line with the way they have dealt with the president and his many controversies for much of the year: Don’t criticize or defend him too much. And establish distance from him when at all possible.
“If you have unlimited time, unlimited money and unlimited scope and you’re a prosecutor, you’re going to wind up indicting somebody for something, and we’ll just see where that leads to,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a frequent Trump critic, was less casual. “These indictments raise more questions than they answer,” he said in an interview. “I suspect at this moment there is a lot more we don’t know than we what do.” But even he was not rushing to any conclusions.
Leading Democrats sounded different notes. They said Congress should respond to the indictment against former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the revelation that former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about outreach effort to Russian officials, by swiftly passing laws to protect Mueller from any retaliation from Trump.
“It is imperative that Congress take action now to protect the independence of the Special Counsel, wherever or however high his investigation may lead,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. He added that Congress “must also make it clear” that any attempts to pardon Manafort “would be unacceptable, and result in immediate, bipartisan action by Congress.”
Two bipartisan pairs of senators unveiled legislation in August to prevent Trump from firing Mueller without cause. Dent said Monday that he was open to the idea. But Senate Republican leaders signaled no motivation to move ahead with those bills.
“He’s not going to be fired by the president,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) of Mueller. Pressed why he was so sure, Hatch replied: “Because I know him. He knows that’d be a stupid move.”
Asked whether Congress should shield the Mueller investigation, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the second-ranking Republican, replied simply, “I think he knows what to do and he’s doing it.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that Trump had “no intention or plan to make any changes with regard to the special counsel.” Some Republicans were not fully convinced.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has been outspoken in criticizing Trump, said “there’s no indication that he’s going to go in and fire or pardon” right now.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is co-sponsoring one of the bills released in August, said the charges revealed Monday “haven’t influenced my decision” — and he also isn’t in a rush to get the bill out there. “It’s not going to run as an independent bill on the floor.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wanted no part of the bombshell developments Monday. McConnell left a news conference on judicial nominations and religious liberty well before reporters could ask him about it.
In an interview with a Wisconsin radio station, Ryan did not discuss it except to promise that it would not affect the House’s rollout of a sweeping tax bill this week.
Others followed their lead. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) awkwardly exited the news conference with McConnell through doors behind flags.
“I probably know less than you,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told a reporter on his way to McConnell’s office. He declared that he was “way behind on that issue.”
Some Republicans openly worried about the impact of the news on their agenda. This week, House Republicans are planning to unveil their tax bill — which is their most pressing legislative undertaking.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who is close with Ryan, noted that the timing of the indictment and its “very serious” charges was “not particularly helpful” to the tax bill’s rollout.
He also said the revelations could compound existing challenges facing the congressional committees’ also investigating Russian meddling.
“My instinct tells me they’ve been threatened to some degree by the Mueller investigation — and appropriately so,” said Cole, who does not sit on any of the panels looking into the matter.
Mueller’s charges come as two of the three congressional investigations into Russian meddling have been foundering along political lines, with Republicans and Democrats pursuing separate and sometimes directly competing lines of inquiry.
Earlier this month, the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee launched probes of a deal approved by the Obama administration giving Russia a significant stake in the American uranium market, reviving a political cudgel Trump used against Clinton during the presidential campaign, despite scant evidence of her personal involvement.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), also told reporters last week that she and the committee’s chairman, Grassley, were going their separate ways on the panel’s Russia probe, punctuating that announcement Friday by releasing a tranche of written requests for information from the White House, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, and the heads of social media companies caught up in Russia’s influence campaign.
The Senate Intelligence Committee continues to work in a bipartisan fashion, and a person with knowledge of that probe said Monday that “very little” in the indictment and the Papadopoulos plea was new information to their investigation.
The panel has already spoken with Manafort behind closed doors, and scheduled an interview with his business partner Rick Gates, who was also charged Monday.
That interview may now be complicated by the fact that Manafort and Gates are confined to their homes, and can only leave for medical or religious reasons. The Senate Intelligence Committee previously attempted to talk to Papadopoulos, but was unable to.
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said Monday that the charges made it “important for Congress ultimately to hear from Mr. Manafort, Mr. Gates, and Mr. Papadopoulos, to ensure the congressional investigations incorporate relevant information and develop a comprehensive understanding of these individuals’ actions.” Schiff added that the charges “could provide invaluable insights on core issues we are investigating.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee has struggled to secure an interview with Manafort in recent months: Grassley’s team accuses Feinstein of preventing the committee from interviewing him in July, before his apartment was raided by FBI agents — an insinuation Feinstein denies. Feinstein meanwhile has suggested Grassley has been slow-walking the committee’s probe and surmised to reporters that a drafted subpoena for Manafort’s testimony would not be issued.
Grassley said in a statement Monday that “it’s important to let our legal system run its course” and that “it’s good to see the Justice Department taking seriously its responsibility to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act.” Grassley’s committee began investigating lax enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act since 2015.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that nothing that happened Monday changed his approach.
“The special counsel has found a reason on criminal violations to indict two individuals and I will leave that up to the special counsel to make that determination,” he said in a statement.