CAPITOL HILL - Shock and surprise are now part of the routine on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers start each morning grappling with a new political reality brought on by revelations from the night before.
A day that began with allegations that President Donald Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating links between Russia and his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, ended with the game-changing Justice Department appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as the Russia investigation special counsel.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. Cummings said he was “personally pleased” by the choice of Mueller, but told reporters his committee’s efforts would not let up because of the critical nature of Congress’ duties preventing the threat posed to American democracy.
“It’s good that we all have a focal point that we all trust,” Rep. Darrell Issa said as news of the appointment broke late Wednesday.
“You want to make sure we have somebody who doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel — we don’t want to have five or six months of nothing while an organization stands up,” said Issa, who has called for a special counsel since February. “You want to hit the ground running and can be accountable in a matter of weeks to the oversight of Congress.”
The appointment ended a long day for a crisis-weary Congress. If the Comey allegations are proved true, the president’s request could be prosecuted as obstructing an investigation and could be grounds for impeachment.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz demanded proof of those conversations, while inviting Comey back to Capitol Hill to testify. A handful of Republicans joined House Democrats’ long-running calls for an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. House Republicans Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Rep. Justin Amash went further, raising the possibility of impeaching Trump if his request to Comey could be proved.
But for most Republicans, facing down a gantlet of reporters outside their weekly morning strategy meeting was just the latest challenge in an exhausting news cycle.
“The only distraction is if you let it be a distraction,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk told reporters. “I don’t see this as a distraction. You guys will be here asking about another issue in a week or two. It’s just an evolving news cycle these days.”
Wait and see
In a week of fast moving revelations about Trump, the majority of the Republican conference appeared to be taking a wait-and-see approach until Comey speaks.
With a year and a half to go until the 2018 midterm elections, many members of Congress are carefully watching polling numbers for Trump back in their home congressional districts.
“People voted for him because they were sick and tired of politicians and political speak,” said Rep. James Comer, who described the president as very popular in Comer’s home congressional district in Kentucky.
“I think a lot of times he’s the victim of not being a career politician, not knowing that sometimes when you say a joke, and everybody knows it’s a joke but when it’s written in print, it doesn’t sound like a joke,” Comer said of Trump’s comments to Comey.
For House Speaker Paul Ryan, the chaos of daily revelations cannot become a distraction from his self-described “once in a generation” opportunity to put an ambitious legislative agenda through a Republican-controlled Congress.
“We can’t deal with speculation and innuendo, and there’s clearly a lot of politics being played,” Ryan said Wednesday. “Now is the time to gather all the pertinent information,” he said, describing his message to House Republicans during their weekly meeting. “Our job is to be responsible, sober and focused only on gathering the facts.”
One Republican lawmaker ducking cameras outside the meeting resorted to just that one word.
“Facts!” shouted departing Rep. Scott Perry, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “We need facts, not speculation, let’s get some facts!”
The Democrats’ approach
Facts also were on the minds of House Democrats and their strategy of calling for an in-depth investigation. With limited political leverage in the minority party, Democrats have to be careful not to alienate voters by condemning the president without sufficient evidence.
They failed to force a House floor vote Wednesday on legislation that would create an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. The rare procedural move last worked in 2015 and would have backed House Republicans into a politically difficult yes or no vote.
While two House Democrats have called for the president’s impeachment, the rest of the party has remained focused on an independent investigation.
“The country has to believe that the seriousness of conduct is such that the president cannot continue in office,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California and the ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said. “It cannot be perceived as an effort to nullify the election by other means.”