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Despite Trump Scandals, Congressional GOP Isn’t Abandoning Ship — Yet

Ousted FBI director Jim Comey is tentatively scheduled to testify before the House next week.

US President Donald Trump arrives at the US Coast Guard Academy Commencement Ceremony in New London, Connecticut, May 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump arrives at the US Coast Guard Academy Commencement Ceremony in New London, Connecticut, May 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid a firestorm of criticism over President Donald Trump’s disclosure of classified information to senior Russian officials and allegations that he attempted to quash the FBI’s investigation of his former national security adviser, his Republican allies on Capitol Hill reacted nervously on Wednesday to the president’s latest self-inflicted wounds.

But senior Republicans who’d started the week deflecting concerns about Trump’s mishandling of intelligence sought a sober reaction to the latest revelation — that Trump allegedly attempted to kill the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

“Now is the time to gather all the pertinent information,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the speaker of the House, told reporters Wednesday. “Our job is to be responsible, sober and focus only on gathering the facts.”

Trump reportedly urged then-FBI Director James Comey at a private White House meeting in February to halt the investigation into his disgraced national security adviser, and focus on jailing journalists instead, according to reports of the FBI director’s hand-written memos. Those revelations have moved some GOP legislators to abandon Trump, with at least three Republican lawmakers openly mulling the prospects for impeachment on Wednesday.

Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) have all said Trump’s attempt to quash the Flynn investigation may constitute an impeachable offense. Curbelo even demanded a correction from Mother Jones after the magazine reported that Amash had been the first to call for Trump’s impeachment.

But so far, those defections seem to represent isolated occurrences, and the broader Republican caucus has for the most part simply expressed concern over Trump’s behavior.

Still, with each new revelation, once unflappable lawmakers are starting to tsk-tsk at a White House that has struggled to contain the fallout from any of its self-inflicted crises. What’s more, many worry that the dumpster fire will suck oxygen out of Congress’ ambitious legislative agenda.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called for “less drama” from the White House. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has described the Trump administration as in a “downward spiral.”

In coming days, Congress will play host to the latest high-profile drama of the Trump era. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said he had scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday, May 24 with Comey. Chaffetz quipped on Twitter that he hadn’t yet confirmed the details, since he only had the director’s government-issued phone number. “I still need to speak with him…evidently has a new #.”

Comey’s much-anticipated return to Capitol Hill after his firing last week will provide a venue for the former prosecutor to describe the events leading up to his firing. In particular, lawmakers are expected to press Comey on what exactly Trump told him in asking him to back off the Flynn investigation.

The Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees have requested copies of Comey’s memos detailing conversations with Trump, and the intelligence panel on Wednesday invited Comey to testify both behind closed doors and in a public session. Committee aides remained tight-lipped about when Comey might appear.

Congressional investigators have for the most part declined to use one of their most forceful tools — the power of subpoena — to request documents from the White House. Prior to the allegations about Trump trying to quash the Flynn probe, the president said on Twitter he had tapes of Oval Office conversations with the the FBI chief. Congressional oversight committees have requested those tapes but have so far not utilized the power of the subpoena.

Nevertheless, at least a few Republicans on Capitol Hill appear to be losing patience with Trump. A growing list of GOP lawmakers — including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) — joined Democratic colleagues in calling for an independent investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and ties to the Trump camp.

But such statements, like the handful of House GOP calls for impeachment, represent hairline cracks in Republican party unity rather than any apparent breach that would be required to start proceedings to remove Trump from office.

Republicans emphasize that the sprawling FBI and congressional investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the election have yet to produce any hard evidence. For now, Republicans appear content to let the investigation led by the House and Senate intelligence committees run their course.

Meanwhile, they are happy to parrot Trump’s talking points that the self-inflicted scandals somehow represent a media conspiracy. “It is obvious that there are some people out there that want to harm the president,” Ryan said Wednesday.

As Republicans continue to play for time, Democrats keep hammering away at the administration. A letter from eight Democratic Senators on Wednesday demanded that the Justice Department inspector general examine whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions violated his pledge to recuse himself from the Russia investigation by involving himself in the decision to fire Comey and in the search for his successor.

In the House, Democratic lawmakers attempted on Wednesday to force a vote on a bill to create an independent commission to investigate the Russian meddling and possible links to the Trump camp.

But even as Democrats continue to attack the Trump White House, the party is not yet ready to put impeachment on the table. Such a move would represent a “wrenching” development for the country, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Wednesday.

“The country would have to have come to the point where they think the president’s conduct is so disqualifying he can be removed from office,” Schiff told ABC. “I don’t think we should rush to that conclusion.”

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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