A growing chorus of congressional Republicans are calling for former FBI Director James Comey to testify before Congress about his interactions President Donald Trump — including whether Trump tried to obstruct the criminal probe into ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
And more Republicans appeared open to appointing a special prosecutor or independent commission to investigate the ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Yet Trump and the White House have some defenders on Capitol Hill, and party leaders such as Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are trying to contain the political fallout from the scandal by urging members to avoid “rushing to judgment.”
And a number of Republicans are waving off allegations that Trump tried to derail the Flynn probe and then fired Comey over the issue, claiming it’s all hearsay and there is no concrete proof yet that Trump did anything improper. Comey reportedly kept contemporaneous notes of his conversations with the president.
But there’s been an unmistakable shift in attitude toward Trump among most congressional Republicans since the New York Times broke the story late Tuesday about the president’s interactions with the former FBI chief.
“I think it’s time that we look at the idea of an independent commission or special prosecutor. I’m not sure the best venue,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) during a Wednesday morning interview on CNN. “But I think it’s time that we do whatever is necessary that when this is over, we give people confidence that either way, either way it goes, justice has been served.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that he will not “speculate on press reports” and instead focus on securing Comey’s public testimony before the Judiciary Committee. Graham has been chairing a subcommittee probe looking into Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 elections.
“The country deserves answers to the questions raised and former Director Comey deserves an opportunity to be heard and if appropriate, challenged,” Graham said in a statement. “The sooner Mr. Comey testifies publicly before the Judiciary Committee, the better for our nation.”
“Look, it’s inevitable now and inescapable. I thought he was going to have to do this anyway,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Fox News of Comey testifying. “But given what we read yesterday in the newspaper, Director Comey, or former Director Comey, will have to testify before Congress, I imagine before the Judiciary Committee, and he’s going to have to turn over these notes and anything else that he kept, and we’ll go from there.”
Rubio added in an interview that Comey’s writings are “relevant and should be looked at. … And I anticipate that will happen, one way or the other.”
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz has asked the FBI to turn over any records it has on the Trump-Comey interactions. Chaffetz also wants Comey to appear before his panel and said he will subpoena Comey if necessary. Ryan is backing Chaffetz’s request.
“We need the facts,” the speaker told reporters. “It is obvious that there are some people 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.”
Ryan, though, said there shouldn’t be a “rush to judgment,” and he questioned why Comey didn’t come forward with his concerns about Trump when the conversation allegedly occurred.
“I am sure we are going to go on to hear from Mr. Comey about why, if this happened as he allegedly describes, why didn’t he take action at the time?” Ryan said. “So there are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Trump has other defenders inside the party. Some Republicans say Comey’s memo is not enough to suggest Trump may have broken the law. Others suggested that perhaps Trump didn’t understand the import of his comments to Comey about Flynn.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the most senior GOP senator, said he wants to put the Comey memos story “to bed” but does not believe that Comey should be hauled in front of Congress for public testimony.
“It’s up to them to determine how they want to do it. I never impose,” Hatch said of the White House in an interview. Asked if he believed Comey should testify, Hatch broke with some of his colleagues: “Not particularly. I think it’s overblown.”
“It’s hearsay so far,” added Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.). “For all I know, nobody’s seen the memo, not saying it doesn’t exist. Also it’s Comey writing a memo from a conversation, so it’s a lot of hearsay. Second of all, if it’s what I heard, there was nothing illegal about it. Trump is a businessman, not a politician….”
Democrats are waging a full-scale offensive over Comey, though party leaders so far are strenuously avoiding talk of impeachment.
“Concerns about our national security, the rule of law, the independence of our nation’s highest law-enforcement agencies are mounting in the land,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Schumer asked for the White House to turn over transcripts of Trump’s conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to determine if Trump revealed highly classified information.
Schumer also renewed his call for a special prosecutor to look into the Trump-Russia ties. “The American people must have faith in the integrity and impartiality of this investigation,” Schumer said.
Burgess Everett and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.