Trump loyalists lose patience with congressional Russia probes
Loyalists of President Donald Trump are losing patience with Republican leaders over the wide-ranging Russia probes creeping into his inner circle, saying House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have allowed the investigations to hobble the White House for months.
Congressional investigators, say some lawmakers and state GOP leaders who back Trump, have let the probes — and the media coverage they generate — sidetrack the president as his allies, family members and aides are hauled in for questioning about whether Russians had American help in their quest to tip the 2016 election against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
GOP leaders largely have kept their distance as the House and Senate intelligence committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee conduct their separate Russia probes — which are independent of the investigation underway by special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director. The Senate intelligence panel will update the public on its progress Wednesday. But Trump’s most ardent supporters say it’s time to clamp down.
“Three investigations is just way too many,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.). “Some of them need to step back and wait until we see what evidence is educed.”
Lori Klein Corbin, a member of the Republican National Committee from Arizona, said the probes are a distraction to Trump.
“Of course, the Republican leadership is behind these probes,” she said. “The Republicans cannot get over the fact that Trump won and is our president.”
Some Trump allies believe that the congressional inquiries offer Democrats platforms to raise questions that strike at the legitimacy of the 2016 election. And they allow a steady drumbeat of leaks and mini-revelations to preserve a sense of intrigue and suspicion around key figures in the Trump White House.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, crystallized the fury last week when, during a Fox News interview, he called out McConnell and Ryan by name.
“Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have allowed three investigative committees on Capitol Hill with full subpoena power, they're going after President Trump every day,” he boomed. In a “60 Minutes” interview last month, Bannon suggested the investigations were an attempt by the Republican establishment to “nullify” the 2016 election.
Members of Trump’s base began echoing the complaints, accusing leaders in their own party of harboring secret desires to undermine the Trump agenda.
“From the beginning, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have not been friends of the president of the United States,” said Robert Graham, a former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party.
GOP leadership aides reject suggestions they’re working to undermine Trump and say meddling in the work of their committees would be counterproductive and wrong.
“This is not a Congress that gets in the way of investigations,” said one House leadership aide, adding that if a thorough probe exonerates Trump, it would help “clear his name.”
That’s the tack that most Republicans in Congress have taken amid the swirl of allegations that has engulfed the White House. “I am hopeful it will be fair and impartial and will illuminate the facts of exactly what Russia did to undermine our electoral process,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who ran against Trump for the 2016 GOP nomination.
But the even-handedness is partly what’s infuriating Trump’s most zealous supporters. They want their colleagues instead to probe more deeply into issues that could harm Democrats — from allegations about mishandling of funds by the Clinton Foundation to revelations that former FBI Director James Comey may have drafted a statement exonerating Clinton in a 2016 investigation before agents had finished witness interviews.
Democrats, they complain, surely wouldn’t investigate a president of their own party with as much vigor.
“My friends on the other side of the aisle, they view almost everything through a political lens,” said Biggs, “and Republicans don’t seem to do that as well.”
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who is running for the Senate on a pro-Trump platform, also indicated that he’s tiring of the Russia probes.
“I think the American people just expect us to move on and get their work done instead of focusing on what appears to be a witch hunt,” he said.
In the Senate Intelligence Committee, where the Russia probe appears to be the most advanced, top investigators Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) have attempted to maintain bipartisan comity. They’ve been tight-lipped about their findings so far and say they are limited in what they can discuss publicly — both by the traditional secrecy of the committee and because the probe relies on classified information.
The committee has most recently focused on Russia’s manipulation of Facebook, Twitter and Google to drive an anti-Clinton propaganda campaign and inflame cultural divisions in the United States. But many Trump supporters think social media is a sideshow as well.
“People think it’s crazy. I think your average person in Nebraska has concluded there’s nothing there. That’s certainly my conclusion,” said J.L. Spray, a Republican national committeeman from Nebraska. “There’s so many phantoms, and now we learn about Facebook and Google. I think we’re just swinging at air. The big ‘duh’ is the Russians are f---ing with us on Facebook. Any 9-year-old kid would figure that out.”
Veteran GOP strategist Saul Anuzis said the griping by Trump supporters reflects pent-up frustration that Trump has been besieged since his inauguration.
“I think there’s a frustration that Trump seems to be constantly under attack. It doesn’t matter what the process is, there’s a feeling that he’s not being fairly treated,” he said. “The president never got his honeymoon period.”
Many Republicans are still waiting to see what comes of the probes. Among the right-leaning grass roots in Burr’s home state, “it’s maybe 50-50” between those who support letting the investigations take their course and those who perceive the Russia inquiries as a threat to the president, said Erik Wilson, a board member of the free-market Republican Liberty Caucus of North Carolina.
“I think the greater risk would be if they didn’t. The backlash and the hue and cry of cover-up and political favoritism would probably be far worse,” said former RNC Chairman Michael Steele.
“Let the committees do their job and let the investigations go where they need to go,” Steele said. “The general thinking is, well, if there was no behavior to investigate in the first place, well, we wouldn’t be here then, would we?”