Republicans were not eager to talk about the federal charges issued Monday against former Trump campaign officials. And they weren’t afraid to show it.
Two prominent GOP senators — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley — left a press conference in the Capitol on judicial nominations early, leaving their colleagues to field questions from reporters about the indictments brought by Justice Department special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The remaining six lawmakers made clear, as the overhead lights flickered on and off and reporters shouted inquiries about Mueller, that they would take questions only on the four judicial nominees the Senate is considering this week.
But in choosing to avoid addressing the elephant in the room — the 12-count indictments against onetime Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his senior aide Rick Gates, and the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, a former campaign foreign policy adviser — the lawmakers were faced with perhaps another equally difficult set of questions.
One of the only inquiries on judicial nominations that they received? How their stance against religious tests squares with their support of Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, a candidate who has said Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress.
“Just because you’re a member of a political party doesn’t mean you agree 100 percent with … some other officeholder or candidate for office. So I would disagree with that statement,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said.
The Texas Republican, the only lawmaker to respond to inquiries at the press conference, skillfully avoided weighing in directly on Monday’s news that took Washington by storm.
“That really isn’t our job. That’s not our wheelhouse,” Cornyn said.
Other Republicans were just as eager to keep the focus on their pending attempt to rewrite the U.S. tax code and not on the first federal charges brought as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials.
“I really don’t have anything to add other than nothing’s going to derail what we’re doing in Congress,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said in a radio interview Monday. “Nothing derails us from focusing on that. That’s basically where a lot of our time and attention is focused on right now.”
“If you have unlimited time, unlimited money and unlimited scope and you’re a prosecutor, you’re going to wind up indicting somebody for something,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “We’ll just see what it leads to.”
While GOP lawmakers stayed largely silent on the charges, Democrats pounced on the news. Some even renewed their calls for legislation to protect Mueller as the White House continued to face questions over whether Trump is considering firing the special counsel.
“The President must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way. If he does so, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a statement.
The Trump administration, however, continued to reiterate that the president is not currently considering firing Mueller.
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And for those Republicans who did weigh in on the charges, many said they did not see an immediate reason to advance such a bill.
“It becomes a political statement more than it does anything else. There’s been no real risk to the Mueller probe,” Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said.
One of the GOP senators at the judicial press conference, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, did not weigh in under the glare in the Senate Radio & TV Gallery. But afterward, he released a statement saying Mueller should be given space to do his job.
“These are serious charges, and I believe that it’s in the best interest for all parties involved to allow Bob Mueller to conduct a full and vigorous investigation. There will be procedural milestones, like today’s announcement, along the way, but that doesn’t change the basic equation that the Special Counsel needs the time and support necessary to get to the bottom of things,” Hatch said.
While the GOP may not be jumping at the opportunity to discuss the new charges in the Mueller investigation, they may help steer the ongoing Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation.
“We know there were [Russian] attempts to engage the campaign,” said Cornyn, a member of the Intelligence panel. “I think we ought to continue to look at it.”