If President Donald Trump was hoping congressional Republicans would rally to his side in his effort to discredit former FBI Director James Comey, he’s probably pretty disappointed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Trump might bring down his own presidency. Sen. Jim Lankford (R-Okla.) said Trump’s interactions with Comey were “very inappropriate.” And Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said it’s unclear whether Trump’s actions toward Comey — leading to his abrupt firing on May 9 — amounted to a crime.
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Across national news shows on Sunday, Republican lawmakers showed varying degrees of concern about Trump’s handling of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and his decision to fire Comey in the midst of that probe. Though many contended the reaction to Comey’s testimony was overblown, most conceded Trump had acted improperly — even if it was out of naivete and not malice.
None embraced Trump’s depiction of Comey as a liar or attempted to dispute Comey’s account of private meetings with the president. Comey told the Senate intelligence Committee that in several meetings prior to his ouster, Trump asked him to help “lift the cloud” of the Russia inquiry and, in the most damaging instance, said he hoped Comey would let go of his related investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“He doesn’t strike me as someone who would lie under oath,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said of Comey.
More troubling to some lawmakers was the fact that Trump continues to weigh in on the investigation — in public and on Twitter — and has launched a campaign to attack Comey’s credibility.
“You may be the first president to go down because you can’t stop inappropriately talking about an investigation that if you just were quiet would clear you,” Graham said on CBS ‘ “Face the Nation.”
Since Comey testified last Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Trump has begun questioning the former FBI director’s credibility. Comey revealed that after his firing, he steered the content of memos memorializing his account of meetings with the president to the press. Though he maintains the material in those memos was unclassified, Trump has begun attacking him as a “leaker” and suggested Sunday that his decision to make his concerns public could be illegal.
“[Comey’s testimony] showed no collusion, no obstruction, he’s a leaker,” Trump said on Friday in the White House’s Rose Garden. On Sunday morning, he tweeted, “I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible. Totally illegal? Very ‘cowardly!’”
But even Trump’s staunchest Republican defenders declined to directly back up that claim on Sunday. “I don’t know whether it’s a crime,” Lee said. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said that “even if the law were not broken,” Comey shouldn’t have leaked to the press.
“Man up,” he said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.” “Come right out and say ‘This is what happened.’” King also mused that Comey could be behind a string of damaging press leaks in December, January and February that have contributed to the administration’s stumbling start.
But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) had strong praise for Comey after his testimony. “I want to say personally on behalf of all the committee members we’re grateful for your service to the country not just in your capacity as FBI director but as prosecutor, and more importantly being somebody that loves this country enough to tell it like it is,” Burr had told the former FBI chief.
Trump has drawn his staunchest defense from his political allies. Longtime confidant Roger Stone, who himself has been caught up in the Russia investigation but has defiantly insisted he had no illicit contacts with Russians during the campaign, blasted Comey repeatedly over the weekend.
“No obstruction of justice, no collusion from Trump camp. This man is deranged,” Stone said of Comey on Sunday, tweeting a picture of a Comey t-shirt with the words “Nut Job” emblazoned below his face.
But even his top supporters struggled at times with their defense. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. seemed to suggest on Fox News over the weekend that his father did in fact tell Comey he “hoped” the FBI would let the Flynn investigation go.
“When he tells you to do something, guess what, there’s no ambiguity in it,” Trump Jr. said. “There’s no, ‘Hey I’m hoping.’ You and I are friends, ‘Hey hope this happens but you got to do your job’. That’s what he told Comey.”
Yet, Trump Jr.’s comment seemed to contradict the president and his legal team, who said Trump never made the remark at all.
And when Republican Party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel – one of Trump’s most vocal allies amid the growing scandal — called for Congress to end its inquiries into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaigns, she drew a swift rebuke from Graham.
“None of your business,” he said when asked about Romney McDaniel’s remarks.
One curveball that lawmakers may have to address this week: a Trump lawyer declined to rule out whether Trump would consider trying to oust Mueller.
“The president is going to seek the advice of his counsel and inside the government as well as outside. And I’m not going to speculate on what he will, or will not, do,” attorney Jay Sekulow said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sekulow said he “can’t imagine” the issue would arise, but “that again is an issue that the president with his advisers would discuss if there was a basis.”
Trump doesn’t have the power to fire Mueller directly, but in theory could order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to dismiss Mueller and could fire Rosenstein if he didn’t comply. Trump could then nominate someone who would likely dismiss the special prosecutor.
Asked about the prospect of Trump pushing out Mueller, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) said on the same show, “That’d be a mistake.” He called Mueller “above reproach.”
Democrats have begun suggesting with increasing volume that Trump may have obstructed justice by allegedly pressuring Comey away from the Flynn probe. Most on Sunday cautiously tiptoed around the issue, noting that Mueller’s probe would get to the bottom of that question. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, though, said he intends to invite Trump to testify publicly and under oath before the Senate. Trump himself said Friday he would be willing to defend himself in public testimony. But Schumer’s request seems unlikely to materialize anytime soon.
Comments from lawmakers tee up a frenetic week of action in their Russia probes. The House intelligence committee has requested copies of any tapes Trump may have of his meetings with Comey. Trump hinted that some may exist in a tweet last month, but he’s since refused to confirm or deny their existence, frustrating members of Congress trying to clear up the matter. The Senate intelligence Committee is working to schedule a hearing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from any role in the Russia investigation.
Comey, on Thursday, suggested he had non-public information that contributed to Sessions’ recusal, and late Saturday, as questions about that information grew, Sessions announced his plan to testify on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether Sessions’ appearance will be public or private.
The Senate intelligence panel is also working to schedule an interview with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who reportedly attempted to establish a communications backchannel with the Kremlin in late December. And Manchin said he’s hoping to schedule a closed meeting with two top intelligence officials — Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA director Mike Rogers — to discuss reports that Trump had asked them to undermine the Russia investigation. Both men declined to speak publicly about those reports during an open hearing before the committee on Wednesday.
And Graham said he expects the Senate to pass a sanctions package that could slap Russia with penalties for its interference in the 2016 election. If Trump doesn’t sign it, he said, “He would be betraying democracy.”