GOP Closes Ranks Behind Trump Amid Democrats' Comey Fury

  • Senators fend off furious Democrats’ calls for special counsel
  • Leaders say Russia probes will continue, won’t affect agenda

Capitol Hill Searches for Answers on Comey Firing

Senior Senate Republicans closed ranks behind President Donald Trump Wednesday after his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, rejecting calls for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s meddling in the election and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign.

The Senate Intelligence Committee pressed on with its investigation, announcing that a subpoena was issued for documents from Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who was fired after giving misleading statements about his conversations with Russia’s U.S. ambassador.

The panel requested the documents last month but Flynn, through his lawyer, refused to provide them. Flynn is a central figure in multiple probes into whether any Trump associates colluded with Russians acting to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.

James Comey

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Republican leaders insisted the turmoil shouldn’t harm their legislative agenda, including overhauls of health-care and tax laws. Still, there was an undercurrent of unease among some in the GOP about the timing and rationale given for the firing even as party leaders dismissed Democratic protests.

"I’m sure they’ll make the most of it but we’re going to keep plowing ahead," Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said about Democrats in an interview at the Capitol. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s call for a special prosecutor.

"You get whiplash with Senator Schumer’s position on Comey," Cornyn said. "One day he thinks he’s a knight on a white horse, the next day he’s the devil incarnate, so I don’t believe it’s sincere."

‘Serious Doubts’

Schumer, speaking on the Senate floor, cited reports that Comey met last week with Rod Rosenstein -- the deputy attorney general who this week recommended his firing -- to seek more resources for the Russia investigation.

“That might be the reason he was fired -- because he was pursuing the investigation in an accelerated way,” Schumer said. He said "serious doubts" had been cast on Rosenstein’s impartiality.

A handful of Republicans said they were troubled by the timing of Comey’s firing, though, and that they want briefings from the administration on why Trump acted now. Some, including Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said they haven’t decided whether there should be a special prosecutor.

QuickTake Q&A: What Happens to Trump-Russia Probe After Comey

"I just don’t know why this happened now. I’m having trouble with it still," Flake said. "With regard to a special prosecutor, I’m looking to see how that would impact the Senate investigation that’s going on."

Senator John McCain of Arizona repeated his call for a select committee to investigate the Russian interference, though he said in an interview he wasn’t calling for a special prosecutor.

Late Wednesday, Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, requested a closer look at Comey’s firing. In a statement announcing a letter he sent to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, Chaffetz requested Horowitz expand his office’s January 2017 review of Justice’s and the FBI’s conduct during the 2016 election to include the administration’s decision to fire Comey.

"Previously I asked Inspector General Horowitz to review the FBI’s actions in advance of the 2016 election," Chaffetz said in the statement. "Today I sent a letter urging IG Horowitz to expand the scope of his review to include the decision to fire Director Comey. I look forward to receiving the IG’s findings."

Confidence in Probe

Many other Republicans said they had confidence that the FBI would continue to investigate. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said Comey had become a distraction from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s mission and that the director wasn’t running the day-to-day probe anyway.

"Everybody says the guy who was running the investigation was fired and that’s not true," Cassidy said. The person leading the probe would have been reporting to Comey and would still be there to continue the job, he said.

Bill Cassidy

Photographer: Zach Gibson/AFP via Getty Images

Cassidy also said he didn’t think the firing would affect the Senate’s legislative agenda because Democrats weren’t on board with it. Until Democrats engage, "it doesn’t change things at all," he said.

Democrats met privately to plot their response. In his floor speech, Schumer said they will insist that a special prosecutor be appointed by a career Justice Department official rather than Rosenstein, that Comey must testify before senators, and that Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions undergo questioning from senators in separate private briefings.

The minority leader said Democrats will pursue "several things" in coming days. They began slowing down the Senate’s operations Wednesday, refusing to allow committee meetings to run longer than two hours. A spokesman for Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, said the repeated objections were on purpose.

"Today is not a business-as-usual day with a constitutional crisis on our hands," said Ben Marter, Durbin’s spokesman.

Ryan’s Response

The House is on recess this week, and its four top Republican leaders were publicly silent until Speaker Paul Ryan appeared on Fox News late in the day.

Asked whether a special prosecutor should be appointed, he said, "I don’t think that’s a good idea," adding that the current investigations by the FBI and congressional committees "are the way to go."

“I believe that Director Comey was compromised” and that led to his firing, Ryan of Wisconsin said about 24 hours after the firing. He added, "There has never been any evidence presented" of direct collusion between Trump and Russia.

Short Discussion

Senate Republicans sought to portray a business-as-usual attitude. Walking out of a Senate Republican caucus meeting, Bob Corker of Tennessee said members discussed the Comey issue for "maybe 90 or 120 seconds" and that Republicans are reacting on their own rather than as a concerted party line.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said he was focusing on his committee’s probe and rejected talk of a special prosecutor.

Richard Burr

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

"My committee has got the jurisdictional responsibility to investigate this. We are going to do that," Burr told reporters. The North Carolina Republican maintained that he has questions about the Comey firing and that it complicates his task, but argued that it will still be done.

"The timing of this and the reasoning for it doesn’t make sense to me. It creates challenges for the committee," Burr said. "I would rather see this easier than more difficult. I think this made our task a little more difficult, but it didn’t make it impossible."

‘I Don’t Have Faith’

Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he wants a career official at the Justice Department to name a special counsel instead of Rosenstein.

"I don’t have faith in the political appointees. So it should be appointed by the senior most career lawyer at the Justice Department," Warner of Virginia said.

Burr and Warner have invited Comey to appear in a closed hearing on Tuesday.

Rosenstein wrote the memo leading to Comey’s firing just weeks after he was confirmed on a 94-6 vote. The memo faulted Comey for his handling of an investigation last year into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Trump called her at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to inform her that he was firing Comey.

‘Taken Aback’

“President Trump specifically stated that the recommendation was provided by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and Attorney General Sessions," she said. "He said that the reason was because the department was a mess. I was obviously surprised and taken aback.”

Dianne Feinstein

Photographer: Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Feinstein said she had a number of questions. “Why did the president make reference to the Russia investigation in his letter to Director Comey? Was the reason for his dismissal because the department was a mess and lacked leadership or not? If the reason for firing Comey was because of his handling of the Clinton investigation, why now?”

Feinstein agreed with Warner that a career Justice Department official should choose a special prosecutor.

"I voted for Mr. Rosenstein, but if you read his paper, it’s not a legal paper," Feinstein said. "Its quotes are assembled from other people and I thought very troubling. And what the president said is that he accepted the recommendation. So as I read the recommendation, it was not legal. It was not done on any legal theory."

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