Washington went into full-blown crisis mode Wednesday as the Justice Department named a special counsel to look into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election and Congress grappled with growing unease over whether President Donald Trump had tried to quash the investigation.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tapped former FBI Director Robert Mueller for the post, a subject of growing clamor since Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey a week ago.
Mueller’s appointment capped a day that saw calls crescendo for the appointment of a special prosecutor or some other independent investigation to look at a range of issues: possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, the firing of FBI Director James Comey and whether the president had committed a crime when he asked Comey to drop a probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Wall Street showed its concern that Trump’s troubles would cripple plans to ease regulations and cut taxes. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell nearly 373 points as the storm gathered around the president. The 1.78 percent decline was one of the average’s worst days since Trump’s inauguration. Other averages also closed lower: The NASDAQ was down by nearly 2.6 percent and the S&P 500 off 1.82 percent.
The president, meanwhile, defended himself in a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, continuing to push his deeply held notion that he is blameless and his troubles are the doing of others.
“No politician in history – and I say this with great assurity (sic) – has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he said.
The White House announced that Trump would interview four candidates Wednesday afternoon to replace Comey, including former Democrat-turned independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
With Trump scheduled to embark on his first foreign trip Friday, fears were high that another shoe might drop. Some experts suggested the president cancel his travels, but there was no indication such a dramatic step was being considered.
In the wake of a New York Times report that Comey had written contemporaneous memos detailing his meetings with Trump about the investigation of Flynn, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that it had asked Comey to testify. No schedule for the appearance was set, but Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee’s chair, said he expected Comey to agree to testify voluntarily.
The committee also asked acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe to surrender any notes or memos that Comey might have written about the investigation.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also has asked the FBI for memos Comey might have written involving his dealings with Trump and President Barack Obama.
Along with the committee’s ranking member, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Grassley also asked the White House for any records, including recordings, involving its dealings with Comey.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he too had asked for any memos.
Democrats were in full outrage mode. The question of impeachment has even been raised. Asked about the likelihood, Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan said that if Comey’s memo were accurate, then it could be a possibility. But Feinstein offered a note of caution.
“All we know is the newspaper headline,” she said, referring to the Comey memo. “And I’ve been through an impeachment hearing. They’re not good for the country, let alone the individual. And I think until we know much more that this should remain where it is today: off the table.”
Every Democrat on the House Oversight and Judiciary panels signed a letter asking their Republican chairmen to launch an investigation into Trump.
“Given the gravity of the events that have occurred over the past few weeks, our committees should already be conducting a robust investigation,” Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Wednesday. “It is unacceptable to continue ignoring these scandals.”
Republicans, who have largely turned a blind eye to Trump’s unorthodox and controversial behavior, began to feel the ground beneath them crack. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., urged them not to panic. But he acknowledged that the push for a more aggressive investigation may be irresistible.
“We need the facts,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “It is obvious that 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 get all the pertinent information.”
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Republicans questioned Comey’s thinking behind the memo.
“If in fact he was told something that he deemed to be illegal, then he has the obligation to step forward and go to the attorney general or to somebody else,” said Rep. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida. “So if in fact it was illegal, why didn’t he come forward, and if it wasn’t illegal, then what is it?”
But whether it was their fears about a massive blowout in the 2018 midterm elections because of Trump or just a creeping realization that the president is in over his head and that could be dangerous to the republic, the mood among GOP lawmakers appeared to be shifting.
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Indeed, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill has slowly turned dark, according to aides. The corridors are thick with reporters. Senate Press Gallery officials sent out a letter Wednesday warning that “the press following senators have become large and aggressive. We are concerned someone may get hurt.”
Health care and tax overhauls, as much as GOP leaders try to talk about them, get suffocated by the blanket of questions about the president and the many investigations.
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At a moment when Republicans control the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House and should be capable of pushing through their agenda with ease, they are like crew members of a wayward ship, riven by infighting and commanded by an erratic and unskilled navigator.
While partisanship is never far from most congressional debates, including this one, the Trump controversies have gradually taken on a different tone, as each new development creates a fresh headline and fuels the unending political talk fest on cable. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle fret.
The relationship between Trump and congressional Republicans has never been sealed in cement, just political promises. And while there’s little doubt that a lot of Democrats are enjoying the president’s troubles, there seems to be little glee. Lawmakers in both parties are becoming wary of what may lie ahead. Things could become even uglier.
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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., long a Trump foe, likened the ongoing disclosures to the Watergate scandal, which sank President Richard Nixon, and the Iran-Contra scandal, which crippled Ronald Reagan’s second term.
“What I’m saying is . . . all the information needs to get out as quickly as possible so we can resolve the issue and move forward,” McCain said. “After Iran-Contra, Ronald Reagan went on TV and said it was wrong and moved forward.”
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The parade of revelations has been nonstop. Word that Comey had accused Trump of asking him to drop the Flynn probe came less than a week after Trump fired him as FBI director over his irritation with the Russia investigation and only a day after it had been revealed that Trump had disclosed top-secret information to two Russian diplomats during an Oval Office meeting.
The memo revelation also came just a few days after Trump had suggested in a tweet that he had taped Comey during a White House dinner, in what many saw as a threat to prevent Comey from leaking information.
That had everyone asking whether such tapes even exist. The White House refused to say.
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Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Intelligence Committee’s vice chairman, captured the mood with a detailed recitation of what his committee wants.
“We want McCabe to not only turn over the memo, but other relevant documents,” he said. “I’ve got questions about the president’s comments about tapes, secret tapes. We’ve got questions about transcripts from the meeting with the Russians and we have questions pertaining to former Director Comey’s memo. And that’s just Wednesday.”
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“The events of the last two weeks have shaken my confidence in this administration’s competence and credibility,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “There has been revelation after revelation, allegation after allegation of misconduct on the part of the president and his team. In the past two days, it’s reached new heights.”
All this has turned the capital into a political potboiler, with everyone braced for the next tweet, leak or headline that sends the government and news media into another tailspin.
Sean Cockerham contributed to this report.
A TURBULENT TRUMP PRESIDENCY
Jan. 21 – White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer attacks media for reporting size of inauguration crowds.
Jan. 26 – Acting Attorney General Sally Yates reports to the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has lied about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Jan. 27 – President Donald Trump signs executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Jan. 30 – Trump fires Yates.
Feb. 9 – 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a restraining order against the travel ban.
Feb. 13 – Trump fires Flynn.
March 2 – Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuses himself from any investigations relating to Russia and the Trump campaign.
March 6 – Trump issues revised temporarily travel ban of six Muslim-majority countries.
March 15 – Travel ban blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii.
March 20 – FBI Director James Comey testifies that an investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian election meddling has been underway since June.
March 22 – Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., announces that he has seen secret information about incidental collection of Trump and his associates. He cancels the House Intelligence Committee’s public hearing with Yates.
May 8 – Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testify on Russian election interference before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
May 9 – Trump fires Comey
May 15 – Washington Post reports that Trump disclosed confidential information to Russian officials.
May 16 – New York Times reports that Comey wrote a memo detailing Trump’s efforts to persuade him to drop the Flynn investigation.
– Franco Ordoñez