U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Congress Seeks Comey Testimony as Russia Turmoil Engulfs Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Several U.S. congressional panels are pushing for testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey to get to the truth about whether Donald Trump asked him to drop an investigation even as Republicans largely stood by the president.

Most GOP lawmakers tried Wednesday to tamp down the controversy and head off new  investigations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election and potential ties to Trump’s campaign. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told reporters he has full confidence in Trump while a few Republicans called for the creation of new investigative panels.

Representative Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, said a probe by an independent commission would lend credibility to the findings while "nobody would believe" conclusions from the House and Senate intelligence panels. "As long as this continues it is hard to stand behind him," he said.

But most Republicans were able to avoid giving a definitive response about Trump’s conduct because a memo Comey wrote about a meeting with the president hasn’t surfaced publicly. Comey wrote that Trump asked him to drop a probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a day after the president dismissed Flynn.

Republicans like Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, tried to remain upbeat. He 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,” Blunt said.

Trump, who fired Comey on May 9, was meeting Wednesday with four candidates for FBI director, spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters. They are acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, former senior FBI official Richard McFeely and Joe Lieberman, a former independent senator from Connecticut and onetime Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Trump is facing the deepest crisis of his presidency after reports Tuesday about Comey’s memo. The White House was already on the defensive over Comey’s firing and over a report Monday that Trump disclosed sensitive intelligence to Russian officials.

"Look at the way I have been treated lately, especially by the media," Trump told Coast Guard Academy graduates Wednesday in New London, Connecticut. "No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can’t let them get you down." 

The turmoil spilled into financial markets. The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled more than 370 points, Treasuries rallied the most since Brexit and volatility spiked higher as the turmoil surrounding the Trump administration roiled financial markets around the globe. Major U.S. stock indexes tumbled the most in eight months, while the CBOE Volatility Index jumped the most since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.

The Senate Intelligence Committee asked Comey to testify before the panel in public and in private. It asked the FBI for Comey memos about his discussions with administration officials about the Russia probe. The Senate Judiciary panel made a similar request to the FBI for documents and also asked the White House for audio recordings, transcripts and notes of talks with Comey on the investigation. House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz set a hearing for May 24 though Comey hasn’t agreed to appear.

‘Choice of Venue’

“Former director Comey will have his choice of venue," said Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. "The Intelligence Committee is going to continue its investigation full-steam ahead."

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is scheduled to meet privately with all members of the Senate on Thursday to discuss his role in firing Comey last week.

The White House denied Comey’s version of events in an emailed statement that said Trump “has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation." The Comey memo’s emergence had congressional Democrats suggesting that the president engaged in obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.

Ryan said he told fellow House Republicans during a private meeting not to rush to judgment.

"Now is the time to gather all the pertinent information," Ryan told reporters after the private. "Our job is to be responsible, sober and focus only on gathering the facts."

Ryan said lawmakers want to hear from Comey about "why he didn’t take action at the time" if his allegation that Trump asked him to stop investigating Flynn is true. A day before Comey’s meeting with Trump, Flynn had been ousted for what the White House said were misleading accounts of his conversations with Russia’s U.S. ambassador.

Republicans in Congress are trying to project a business-as-usual approach amid the chaos. At their news conference, Ryan and other House Republican leaders talked about National Police Week and their plans to overhaul the U.S. tax code before reporters raised questions about the Trump controversies.

"As long as Congress does its job under the Constitution, nothing is going to stall," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa. "We don’t have to wait for a president; in fact a lot of people in Congress get irritated when presidents interfere."

Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski wrote on Twitter that "the American people deserve to know the truth." While the Senate Intelligence panel should continue its work, she said, "it may be that we need to look to an independent commission or special prosecutor."

In previous months, Republican lawmakers were more likely to fully 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 and continued this week.

‘Highly Troubling’

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.

Democrats were far less sparing in their criticism and repeated demands for a special prosecutor.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee, called the memo as reported “powerful evidence of obstruction of justice.”

“At best, President Trump has committed a grave abuse of executive power,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement. "At worst, he has obstructed justice."