Hill GOP Reels From Trump Chaos, Struggles to Chart Course

(Bloomberg) -- Republicans in Congress are increasingly dispirited over the chaos surrounding Donald Trump, with several saying the nonstop revelations are imperiling their legislative agenda and the top Senate Republican signaling he’d go his own way on some of the president’s top priorities.

Those concerns mounted after news broke Tuesday evening that Trump asked James Comey to close the FBI’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey wrote a memo about the conversation immediately after it occurred in February. Democrats said Trump’s request amounted to obstruction of justice while Republicans demanded information from the administration.

Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’s prepared to block Trump on many of his proposed budget cuts and won’t support major tax cuts that add to the deficit. Nor would he commit to building Trump’s border wall.

The normally taciturn Republican leader let slip some of his frustration with the president, telling Bloomberg News in an interview that he really wants one thing from Trump: “Less drama.”

In previous months, Republican lawmakers were more likely to defend Trump -- even after he and his administration made comments and policy changes that generated intense criticism. That began to change after Trump fired Comey on May 9 and continued this week with a report that Trump revealed highly classified intelligence to senior Russian officials, followed by news of his request to drop the Flynn probe.

After a protracted period of dormancy, financial markets started to give signs of reacting to developments in Washington. Concerns over the turmoil engulfing Trump’s administration weighed on risk appetite, boosting the yen and gold and sending stocks lower.

‘Makes It Tougher’

“Whenever there’s drama going on over there, it makes it tougher for the agenda here,” Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said Tuesday, before Comey’s memo was reported. “But I suppose it’s going to continue, so I’ll have to get used to it.”

Another Republican senator said he wasn’t aware of anyone directly pressing Trump to change his ways or expressing concerns about the president’s reported intelligence disclosure to Russia. The most GOP lawmakers can do is to try to focus on passing legislation, though the senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said those efforts are weakened with every new Trump revelation.

Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, who is heading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference in last year’s election, said Tuesday night that members of Congress have to “compartmentalize” amid White House distractions.

Asked how Republicans will still get their work done, Conaway said, “Well, you get up every morning, put your shoes on and go to work.”

John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said that the chamber has been largely able to do its work despite the repeated eruptions.

“These are daily -- well not daily but they seem like daily -- distractions. And you just have to manage around them,” he said. “We’re proceeding according to plan, but less drama on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue would be a good thing.”

McConnell Agenda

Even before the Comey memo was reported, McConnell laid out an agenda that explicitly rejected more and more of Trump’s major priorities. A tax overhaul, McConnell said, must be revenue-neutral. The president has said it would “OK” if a tax overhaul added to the deficit in the short run to stimulate the economy.

McConnell offered an unusually strong rebuff of a budget request coming from a president of his own party. Trump’s priorities “aren’t necessarily ours,” he said, adding the president’s plan to slash the State Department is “highly unlikely.” Trump is expected to unveil his detailed budget request on May 23.

McConnell also said he’s told the administration he wouldn’t support a big infrastructure stimulus package that adds to the deficit either. The forthcoming infrastructure plan must be a “credible, paid-for” proposal, he said. And he wouldn’t commit to fighting for Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.

“We’ll probably have arguments about what’s a wall and what’s security in the course of the discussion about the spending for next year,” he said.

Rank and File

On the House side, Republican leaders including Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have been noticeably quiet about Trump, offering routine defenses in the wake of each controversy.

But some rank-and-file Republican members are starting to express impatience with Trump. After the Comey memo revelation, Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida said that he wants Congress to create a select committee that would solely focused on Trump and the Russia allegations.

“The administration also needs to be held accountable,” he told reporters Tuesday evening.

Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia, whose district is home to large numbers of FBI and CIA employees, said Trump’s disclosure of classified intelligence to the Russians is “highly troubling.”

“We need to have immediate classified briefings on what occurred at this meeting so that Congress can at least know as much as Russian leaders,” she said in a statement.

Representative Steve Knight of California also said in a statement that he’s joining “many of my colleagues in supporting the assignment of a special prosecutor to take over the ongoing FBI investigation” into Russia’s activities and any possible Trump links.

Frustration, Exasperation

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina sounded a note of frustration on Tuesday, saying he was waiting for someone who participated in the Oval Office meeting with the Russian envoys to brief him on the details.

“I hopefully can cover this in a telephone conversation versus a transcript, but I’ll go that route if I need to,” said Burr, who is leading the panel’s investigation of Russia interference in the U.S. election and alleged ties between Trump associates and Russia.

Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who leads the judiciary panel’s oversight subcommittee, said in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt released Wednesday that he wants all of Comey’s memos and any tapes that exist.

Flake said the Trump administration’s shifting explanations for each controversy, including the reported intelligence disclosure to Russia, increase lawmakers’ concerns.

“We’ve only heard a couple of iterations from the White House so far,” Flake said Tuesday, sounding exasperated. “But we’ll wait for another hour or so, I guess.”

Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, said on MSNBC on Wednesday there are many facts still to gather before any impeachment talk would be appropriate, but the past week’s developments are “disturbing.” While Democrats shouldn’t use Trump’s approach to the FBI merely as a pretense to seek to reverse the 2016 election outcome, lawmakers also can’t turn a blind eye to obstruction of justice if that’s what Trump turns out to have done, King said.

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, whom Trump at one point considered naming secretary of state, was unusually sharp in his scolding of the Trump White House.

“Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happened,” he told reporters Monday night. “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes a worrisome environment.”

Trump Supporters

Some Republicans continue to stand by their president.

Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Trump is still positioned to bring needed change to Washington.

“When people elected the president, they knew they were electing somebody different because they wanted things to change in Washington and I think he has unique potential to bring change to the system and voters knew what they were doing.”

But asked if there is a different mood among Republicans this week, he responded, “Well, it’s only Tuesday.” Asked at what point would he say enough is enough, he said, “You’re coming up with some hypothetical thing in the future where I would say this?”

Hopeful Democrats

For Democrats, Trump’s travails offer new hope for congressional elections in 2018. Even though they face a daunting electoral map, Trump’s unpopularity could put some long-held Republican districts in their reach. Democrats fault Republicans for failing to criticize Trump.

“What we need is courage and patriotism from the Republicans, and what we cannot have is mumbling in the direction of being concerned or troubled or wanting more information,” Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said. “What we need is true patriotism from Republicans and that comes in actions and not words.”