Republican Leaders Stay Silent After Convictions of Cohen and Manafort

(Bloomberg) -- Republican lawmakers taking cues from their leaders about how to address the convictions of two former top aides to President Donald Trump so far have two strategies to choose from: silence or avoidance.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made no mention in a Thursday floor speech of the conviction of former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort or the guilty plea by the president’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. The Kentucky Republican’s office also had no comment when asked to weigh in. A day earlier, McConnell declined to respond to questions from reporters about the president’s growing legal woes.

The House isn’t in session, and Speaker Paul Ryan’s office hasn’t offered a reaction since saying on Tuesday that he needs more information before commenting.

"It’s hard to draw any hard and fast conclusions," said South Dakota’s John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. "Until we know more, I think everybody is in a wait and see mode."

The muted GOP reaction reflects a difficult political calculation for lawmakers ahead of November elections that will determine controls of the House and Senate. Republican candidates who criticize Trump risk alienating his supporters when they need a strong turnout from core GOP voters. But avoiding the legal and political storm around the president risks turning off independent voters and Republican Trump skeptics who will be decisive in dozens of swing districts where Democrats pose the biggest threat to the GOP House majority.

Court Cases

The latest political hurdle for Republicans was thrown up Tuesday, when the president’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to violating campaign law in 2016 while implicating the president in the payment of hush money before the election to two women who said they had affairs with Trump. The same day, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts of tax-and bank-fraud charges related to his work in Ukraine as a result of an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

There are a lot of Republican House members who represent pro-Trump districts where their constituents aren’t paying attention to the legal troubles ensnaring the president’s associates or don’t believe the inquiries are legitimate, according to two GOP aides. For that reason, they said, the Republican-controlled House isn’t going to jump into the lead on executive branch oversight.

Trump’s job approval among Republican voters was 87 percent in a Fox News poll released Wednesday — nearly twice his rating among Americans overall.

Competitive Districts

But the party’s concern is that the rolling controversies and bad news may depress Republican turnout in competitive districts, the biggest threat to GOP chances of keeping control of the House, according to the aides, who asked for anonymity to discussing internal strategy.

It’s not clear whether the GOP-controlled Congress will look further into the allegations raised by Cohen. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa said Thursday his committee staff has contacted Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, as a first step before deciding whether the panel will investigate Cohen’s claims about Trump.

So far, there have been no instructions directly from GOP leaders on how to respond to questions about Trump and his inner circle, one of the aides said, but there is a previously planned conference call next week, before members return to Washington in September.

Representative John Faso of New York is among House Republicans who say they don’t need guidance in staking out a positions to Trump’s legal battles.

Faso said in an interview that he’s not avoiding discussion of Trump’s legal issues in his tight re-election race against Democrat Antonio Delgado, which the non-partisan Cook Political Report rates as a toss-up.

No Conclusions

"The special counsel should be permitted to complete its work, and let the chips fall where they may. It’s important for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to allow the legal process to play out." the Hudson Valley lawmaker said. "Those who are drawing any legal conclusions now are being highly speculative."

Other lawmakers, such Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Tim Scott of South Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana, took a similar approach to specific questions about Cohen and Manafort.

"We haven’t heard all the chapters of this book yet," Kennedy said, declining to say if there should be hearings, investigations or pardons.

Election Issue

Democrats are trying to turn the response by Republicans into a campaign issue itself.

“Was this the moment when Republican leaders finally stood up and said ‘enough’?” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Thursday. "Apparently, my Republican colleagues cannot rouse themselves to offer even a word of criticism for a president now implicated in a federal crime."

Democrats depicted the Cohen and Manafort cases as the latest examples of what they alleged was the corruption pervading the Republican ranks. They revived their calls for legislation to protect Mueller’s Russia investigation, which Ryan and McConnell have declined to bring to a vote.

Trump plans to travel the country to campaign on behalf of Republican candidates -- a decision likely to ensure the 2018 elections are a referendum on his presidency. He went to West Virginia on the day of the convictions to campaign for Patrick Morrisey, a Republican running for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin.

On Thursday morning, Trump remained defiant in an interview on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends,” criticizing Cohen’s plea deal and complaining that Republicans are targeted too often by federal prosecutors. He tweeted Wednesday that Manafort, unlike Cohen, “refused to ‘break’ -- make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.”’

The White House response has been “rather unhelpful” to Republicans, adding to the bind GOP candidates are in, said Alex Conant, a former spokesman for Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

"Echoing the president’s statements that Manafort is a great guy and Cohen is a bad lawyer isn’t the best talking point if you’re a Republican facing a tough re-election," he said. "Bottom line is that Republicans really don’t want to to be talking about Trump’s legal problems because it’s a huge distraction from our positive story."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.