Exhausted from having to keep up with self-inflicted crises that detract from their legislative agenda, Republicans on Capitol Hill are slowly starting to break from President Trump, demanding more information from the White House, which they say has kept them in the dark on potentially leaked classified material.
In a new development in the Trump era, several Republicans are making the political calculation that defending the president before they have all the relevant information might not be in their best interest.
Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents a swing district in the Washington, DC, suburbs and is considered among the most vulnerable House Republicans in 2018, went as far as anybody in a statement, following the Washington Post report about Trump discussing classified information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office.
“Once again we are faced with inexplicable stories coming from the White House that are highly troubling,” she said. “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 and know the impact on our national security, our allies, and our men and women protecting our country.”
"I'd just like to see more discipline in the administration in terms of messaging. I think a lot of people are frustrated by that," Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan told BuzzFeed News after the House voted.
The House was out of session when the news broke and did not return until Tuesday evening. Most Republican members remained quiet on the subject through Tuesday afternoon, with a handful putting out carefully worded critical statements and tweets. While they won’t outright condemn the president, any criticism is significant in light of how much chaos Republicans have been willing tolerate from the new White House.
“Sharing classified info to one of our enemies is a threat to our national security, troops on the ground & relationships w/ trusted allies,” tweeted Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
And Wisconsin GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher, a former intelligence officer, in tweets called for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to get a transcript of the meeting. “While POTUS possesses the authority to disclose classified, even top secret, information, there’s a separate question of whether he should,” he said.
As members were still reeling from the potential classified disclosures, another crisis was already brewing. On Tuesday evening the New York Times reported that fired FBI director James Comey had created a detailed memo of his interactions with Trump and said the president asked him to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Several Republicans declined to comment on the matter, saying they had not had enough time to fully acquaint themselves with the facts of a story that had been published just an hour before.
Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz tweeted that his committee "is going to get the Comey memo, if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready."
"It’s a little concerning," said North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, one of the few Republicans who commented on the latest story. Though he caveated his remarks with the fact that he did not yet know if the story was true, and said that there had been several reports that had proved less salacious than originally portrayed, he said this was a subject on which he felt he wanted to know more.
"There are two schools of thoughts on this: One, was this just Trump being Trump, saying, ‘Hey, you know, better take care of my guy Flynn’? Or was this something legitimately — was there some kind of undue influence? That remains to be seen, and I don’t know the answer to that yet, so we’re kind of watching and waiting," Walker told reporters.
Congressional Republicans have been careful in deciding when and how to publicly rebuke the administration, because their base remains largely supportive of Trump — not to mention Trump’s intermittent threats to support primary challenges to people who oppose him.
As careful as members are being with their public verbiage, behind the scenes there is evident unease about what threats the president could pose politically — even before the surprise firing of Comey or the Oval Office disclosures.
Two weeks ago, when the House passed the Republican health care bill, the GOP consultant got a call from a client in the House. Trump had invited House Republicans to the White House to celebrate the successful vote, and the member was uncertain whether going — and being photographed with Trump celebrating a bill that the GOP had struggled to pass and that might never fully become law — was a good idea politically. The member ultimately did not attend the gathering.
Across Washington, there's been widespread frustration with the lack of information coming from the White House.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr had been unable to get anyone from the White House on the phone all morning to explain what was going on, he told reporters. Asked about the lack of communication, a White House Official told BuzzFeed News that “someone will eventually follow up.”
"There's 535 members of Congress,” the official said tersely. Burr’s committee is leading the Congressional investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election and he is a member of the “gang of eight” group of congressional leaders who are briefed on classified information.
Burr said it was important for him to talk to someone at the White House to figure out exactly what the president said.
Specifically, several Republicans, especially those who represent swing states and districts, are asking the administration for a full briefing on the potential leak. Although Trump himself seemingly confirmed the story in early morning tweets, some Republicans are even joining with Democrats in asking to see transcripts of the meeting to verify the White House's denial of the story.
"If it is in fact true that information was shared with the Russian ambassador, then it seems to me it should be OK to share with US senators," said North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis.
Tillis said he wasn't aware of any communication between his office and the White House. Others including Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said they had not heard from the administration regarding the potential leaks either.
CIA director Mike Pompeo briefed the House Intelligence Committee in a previously scheduled meeting Tuesday, but the White House indicated there was nothing else forthcoming for Republicans demanding information.
During an off-camera briefing, a noticeably subdued press secretary Sean Spicer avoided the question of whether the White House would give senators a briefing or complete transcripts of the president's conversation with Russian officials. He said three senior administration officials — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell — were all there and all gave statements Monday night.
After the briefing, a White House official said that even answering the question would confirm "the inventory of information" referring to a transcript, which the Washington Post reported does exist.
Despite the distractions from the White House, Republicans tried to continue to focus on talking about their legislative priorities and expressed some optimism they would be able to pass bills in line with the campaign promises they made before the 2018 election. “We multitask here,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, adding, however, that “less drama on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue would be a help.”
Walker was less generous. "It is a distraction, there’s no question," he told reporters, adding that it "prohibits us from being able to move as quickly as necessary to fulfill some of the promises we made for the American people, and we’ve already seen some of that."
"Trump is going to do what Trump is going to do,” said a Republican aide. “We're just keeping our head down and trudging forward. He's going to sign what gets in front of him... Would you rather have Trump not do this? Of course. But in a perverse way it's almost kind of helpful. Everyone is so focused on the White House, it lets us just focus on our work.”
Some on the political side also expressed skepticism of just how much this story — even with its national security implications — would really stick to Trump and Republicans. Those Republicans said they felt the media overhyped most everything Trump did, meaning that the real problems often fell by the wayside with less pressing issues.
“If everything’s a scandal, then nothing’s a scandal,” said one GOP consultant. “Everyone’s desensitized. It’s four months in.”
But there was no question Monday that a White House looking to turn the page from the unexpected Comey firing toward the president’s first high-stakes foreign trip was again reeling.
Outside the White House, McMaster said, “The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” but inside it was clear that aides were still scrambling to contain the fallout.
As reporters piled into the area where communications staffers sit to wait for more information, One America News Network reporter Trey Yingst told reporters he saw chief strategist Steve Bannon, Spicer, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and communications director Mike Dubke walking in the direction of the cabinet room.
Just seconds later, yelling could be heard coming from that direction by the assembled reporters. After a BuzzFeed News reporter tweeted about the yelling, communications staffers raised the volume on televisions very loudly to drown out any more sound.
Minutes later, Sanders told reporters that no more information was coming Monday night — and that she didn’t know anything about any yelling between the officials.
As a Trump official walked by, NBC News reporter Monica Alba asked if they were dealing with the fallout of the Washington Post story.
“No,” the official said. “I’m dealing with other dumpster fires.”
Tarini Parti is a Capitol Hill reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Tarini Parti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexis Levinson is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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