That deathly silence you hear is the sound of Republicans rushing to defend Donald Trump in the wake of allegations that he asked James Comey, the former F.B.I. director, to drop the Bureau’s investigation into Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser.
On Tuesday night, after the Times reported that Comey had composed a memorandum recording the President’s request, Republicans were conspicuously absent from the airwaves. The boycott continued into Wednesday: CBS News said it asked twenty Republican senators and congressmen to appear on its morning show to discuss the Comey story, and that all of them had declined.
The Republicans’ predicament was plain. A day earlier, after the Washington Post reported that Trump revealed classified information to the Russian foreign minster, Sergey Lavrov, the White House had rushed out H. R. McMaster, the well-regarded general who replaced Flynn as the national-security adviser, to try to calm things. By insisting that Trump had acted “wholly appropriately” in his meeting with Lavrov, McMaster gave Republican senators such as John McCain the cover they needed to dismiss the story.
The Comey revelation was much more difficult to deal with. Indeed, it amounted to an existential threat to Trump’s alliance of convenience with the Republicans.
The alleged facts were obviously incendiary: the President, in speaking of the Flynn investigation with Comey, had said, “I hope you can let this go.” Trump’s critics greeted the news by talking immediately about obstruction of justice and impeachment. At a CNN town-hall meeting on Tuesday night, Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic Presidential candidate, described Trump’s reported request to Comey as “kind of the definition of what obstruction of justice is about.”
But the Republicans’ problems didn’t stop there. Another key aspect of this story is that it reportedly concerns a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office that took place on February 14th. According to the account in the Times, Trump asked Vice-President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to leave the room before he spoke with Comey. Since nobody else was present, the White House couldn’t wheel out a witness—a McMaster, a Pence, or even a Reince Priebus—to knock down, or even to contextualize, the allegations. All it could do was issue a blanket denial, which said, “The President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn.”
Thus, it was Comey’s word, which he reportedly documented at the time, versus Trump’s, at a time when the President is reportedly stalking around the White House cursing out his own aides. Republicans on Capitol Hill, although they have demonstrated a remarkable willingness to overlook Trump’s misdeeds and falsehoods, are ultimately concerned with their own political futures. For any of them to have come out and backed Trump’s credibility against Comey’s credibility would have taken an act of masochism, or sheer foolishness.
Does this mean that they are ready to impeach Trump? Of course not. On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan broke the Republicans’ silence during his regularly scheduled press conference, which took place following a meeting of the House G.O.P. conference. “Let me tell you what I told our members just this morning,” Ryan said. “We need the facts. It is obvious, there are some people out there who want to harm the President. But we have an obligation to carry out our oversight regardless of which party is in the White House. And that means, before rushing to judgment, we need get all the pertinent information.”
Ryan was speaking from notes, and his words were carefully modulated. On the one hand, he acknowledged Congress’s constitutional duty to follow up allegations pertaining to alleged wrongdoing in the executive branch. He pointed to the fact that his colleague Jason Chaffetz, the head of the House Oversight Committee, had already written to the F.B.I., on Tuesday night, asking it to hand over any notes, documents, or recordings relating to communications between Comey and Trump.
But Ryan’s comments also had a darker undertone. In talking about unnamed “people” being out to get Trump, he raised the spectre of a smear campaign against the President, thus reinforcing a theme that was already spreading like a virus in the alt-right media: that Trump is the victim in this story. Ryan also took a dig at Comey, saying, “I am sure we are going to hear from Mr. Comey about why, if this happens as he allegedly describes, he didn’t take any action at the time. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Although Ryan repeatedly claimed that he wanted to see the facts, he fell well short of supporting calls for a special prosecutor to take over the probe of Russia’s meddling in the election, or for a special bicameral committee of Congress to replace the lackluster investigations that are under way on Capitol Hill. The Speaker’s reluctance to set up any type of independent investigation is still widely shared in the G.O.P. According to a running tally by the Washington Post, just four Republican senators and ten Republican representatives have thus far expressed support for an independent probe.
These numbers are edging up, though, and many elected Republicans are clearly spooked. On Wednesday, Mike Simpson, a veteran Republican congressman from Idaho, called for an independent commission to take over investigating Trump’s alleged Russia links. “I don’t know everything, but everything I know, Comey has the credibility,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “If he’s written this down in memos and so forth, maybe told his chief of staff about it when he wrote it down and stuff, that’s pretty damaging.” Simpson, who is a member of the House Republican Steering Committee, added, “What I’m worried about is, in the early nineteen-seventies, politicians like me were standing around saying, ‘Nixon’s O.K., he didn’t do anything,’ and look what it led to. And every day there is something that adds on to it.” Earlier in the day, Justin Amash, who represents a district in Grand Rapids, Michigan, raised the prospect of impeachment. Asked by a reporter from The Hill if the claims in the Comey memo would, if true, be grounds for impeaching the President, Amash replied, “Yes,” before adding, “But everybody gets a fair trial in this country.”
Amash, a four-term congressman who also distanced himself from Trump during last year’s election campaign, won’t be getting invited to the White House anytime soon. In fact, his statement went beyond where most prominent Democrats are willing to go now. Democratic leaders are clearly worried about moving too fast and allowing Trump and his supporters to claim that he is the target of a partisan witch hunt. (Speaking to a graduating class at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Connecticut, on Wednesday, Trump said, “Look at how I have been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.”)
In a press conference on Wednesday, Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, repeated his call for an independent commission to look into the Trump-Russia imbroglio. More notable, though, was Schiff’s effort to slow down all the talk of impeachment. “I think we ought to keep our focus on finding out the facts, in the first instance,” he said. “No one ought to, in my view, rush to embrace the most extraordinary remedy that involves the removal of the President from office.”
Recalling his role in the impeachment of a federal judge, Schiff said it had been a very serious undertaking, adding, “It’s a whole other order of magnitude when we are talking about the President of the United States.” There were legal issues, including the “question of intent in proving a case of obstruction” of justice, Schiff said. But there was also the bigger “practical question” of whether “this rises to the level of requiring removal from office. In order for that remedy to be appropriate, the country has to believe that the seriousness of the conduct is such that this President cannot continue in office. It cannot be perceived as an effort to nullify the election by other means.”
So what can we infer from all this? First: Republicans are getting increasingly antsy. Second: whatever ultimately happens on Capitol Hill, it going to be a slow dance, rather than a foxtrot.