WASHINGTON — Consternation and confusion overtook Capitol Hill on Tuesday as Republicans confronted twin revelations that President Donald Trump had disclosed highly classified information to the Russians and former FBI Director James Comey’s memo said Trump had asked him to end the probe of ousted adviser Michael Flynn.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell paused and answered simply “no” when asked if he had concerns about the president’s ability to properly handle classified information in wake of the revelations. The Kentuckian said “no” again when asked if he was losing confidence in the president.
But he acknowledged that “it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House.”
Just the opposite happened a few hours later. In a memo, Comey wrote that Trump had asked him to shut down an FBI investigation into Flynn, according to a person familiar with the situation. The White House denied what was first reported by The New York Times.
Republicans caught off-guard by the latest revelation insisted they wanted to hear from Comey.
“Let’s get to the bottom of what happened with the director. And the best way to get to the bottom of it is for him to testify … I’m not going to take a memo, I want the guy to come in,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Addressing the Comey memo, GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas said: “If Comey felt like the president was trying to obstruct justice, Comey would have been duty-bound to report it to the DOJ and act on it. And we’re not hearing that happened. I think this is another example of whatever Trump does gets the worst possible spin.”
Democrats badgered Republicans to stand up to the president, and demanded access to the transcripts of Trump’s meeting last week with two Russian diplomats. After the news broke of the Comey memo, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., stood in the chamber and said, “I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate — history is watching.”
But while a number of prominent GOP senators displayed anxiety and displeasure over the unfolding revelations, Republicans did not appear poised to abandon a president who remains critical to their goals of acting on health care and tax legislation. Several came to his defence and sought to close ranks.
“There isn’t anybody who can run the White House without criticism,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a senior lawmaker. “This man has been subject to more criticism than any predecessor that I know of. They hate him, they didn’t like the fact that he won, he beat their favourite, it was a remarkable election.”
The Washington Post first reported Monday that Trump shared details about an Islamic State terror threat, related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. The Associated Press and other news outlets subsequently confirmed similar details.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said around midday Tuesday that he’d spent the morning trying to get someone at the White House to call him and explain what had actually happened.
“My major concern right now is that I don’t know what the president said,” Burr said. “I’d like to think somebody from the White House who was in the room is going to get on the phone and tell me what they said. … Maybe they’re busy.”
“Any time I read about intelligence in the paper it’s of great concern because that’s what the oversight committee’s supposed to be concerned with,” Burr added. Burr’s committee has requested additional information from the administration.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, offered less than a vote of confidence when asked if Trump could still be trusted with classified information. Corker paused for several seconds, shrugged and then said, “Sure.”
“The president is the commander in chief, he decides what is ultimately classified information and what is not, and we all make mistakes obviously, but I think most of us believe that the president in terms of our national security interests is going to put America first,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican.
Armed Services Chairman John McCain issued a statement calling the reports “deeply disturbing” and said they could impede allies’ willingness to share intelligence with the U.S. in future.
The House came back into session late Tuesday. House Republicans were to hold a weekly closed meeting Wednesday morning after which Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was expected to address the matter. Aides have said he hopes for a full explanation from the White House.
Numerous Democrats pointed out that Ryan had called for Democrat Hillary Clinton to be denied classified briefings after Comey concluded last year that she was careless in how she handled classified information over her email accounts. “If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do if forced to decide between party and country, this is that moment,” No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said in a tweet directed at Ryan.
Ryan’s aides countered by pointing out that in the same July 2016 opinion piece where he called for Clinton to be denied classified briefings because of her email practices, Ryan also said those briefings could resume if she were actually elected.