The controversy over Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia is mushrooming into an all-consuming Washington melodrama and full-fledged criminal investigation. But don’t look to GOP congressional leaders to ditch the president.
Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are taking a cautious approach to Trump’s Russia scandal, pointedly refraining from criticizing the president and tiptoeing around the topic — or simply avoiding it. It’s a strategy intended to avoid intraparty fights over Trump’s controversial presidency and sidestep confrontation with a president of their own party who has yet to sign key GOP agenda items like repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes.
While both men have blasted Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, they aren’t interested in responding directly to allegations of collusion between Trump campaign aides and Moscow. And when asked about the latest drip-drip in the headlines — including multiple reports that Trump has tried to bury the FBI’s Russia investigation — the two leaders often duck and change the subject even as rank-and-file members blast the chaos emanating from the White House.
“I don’t know the veracity of these things. That’s why we have an investigation,” Ryan said at an Axios event Wednesday when asked about Trump reportedly urging ex-FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. “What I’m not going to do is make comments on things that are under ongoing review.”
Ryan’s remarks followed a Tuesday McConnell press conference in which he declined to endorse Trump’s budget and dodged a question about whether he was concerned about reports indicating the president had tried to squash a federal probe into Trump associates.
“I didn’t engage in a ringing endorsement of President Bush’s budgets either,” McConnell said Tuesday. Of the reports on Trump’s intelligence community interventions, the Kentucky Republican merely stated the Senate and special counsel are investigating Russian influence on the election and he’s “confident that both of them will handle it well.”
The two leaders aren’t totally turning a blind eye to the public pressures on Congress to appear as a check on the White House. Both are encouraging their chambers’ investigative committees to probe allegations of obstruction of justice and dig into any Russia-Trump campaign coordination to tilt the election in the brash real estate billionaire’s favor.
In a way, those committee investigations — as well as the appointment of a special counsel at the Justice Department— have given Ryan and McConnell cover to sidestep questions by claiming they’re awaiting the findings of those probes. But the reality is that neither man will lead Republicans in taking a hard line against, or call for the impeachment of, the leader of their party — even if the controversy gets uglier and the public clamors for action.
“He’s got to work with the president, so yes, since the election there’s been a change in tone,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), said of Ryan’s rhetoric toward Trump. “He has to work with the president to get his agenda passed.”
“They’re right not to chase every news allegation and every leak," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "There’s far too much drama coming out of the White House and it does no good to have too much drama coming out of the Senate.”
For McConnell — a cautious, under-the-radar political operator — the mum responses are a character trademark of the low-key Louisvillian. While Ryan never hid his skepticism toward Trump and even slow-walked his endorsement of him during the 2016 election, McConnell parried questions about Trump’s provocative comments and kept any concerns to himself.
That’s because avoiding topics that divide his caucus has always been of paramount concern to McConnell, Republicans say. He didn’t want to put his many vulnerable Republicans on the spot by being forced to react to the GOP leader’s own views last year. And this year he doesn’t want to create unnecessary divisions while his fractured caucus tries to repeal Obamacare.
As Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of McConnell’s closest allies, put it: “We’re talking about what we’re working on, rather than what’s happening at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.”
“There are a lot of legislative leadership lessons you could learn from Sen. McConnell. And that’s one of them," said GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri.
While McConnell’s demeanor and moves to avoid making waves are hardly a surprise, Ryan’s new strategy to hold back on Trump is a shift for a man many Republicans fashioned as the moral compass of the party of Lincoln.
The speaker got burned last fall for taking the then-GOP presidential candidate to task for his remarks about minorities and women. He even uninvited Trump from a campaign rally and considered calling for Trump to relinquish the nomination after he was caught bragging about groping women in an “Access Hollywood” video.
Ryan paid a price: Trump supporters in the House Republican Conference considered banding with conservatives to block his re-election as speaker, though Trump’s endorsement of Ryan squashed that opposition.
Since then, Ryan has minimized his criticism of Trump, though some of the issues he criticized Trump for originally — like his comments about a judge’s Mexican heritage — have not come up since the election.
Still, it’s no stretch to say Ryan no longer leads the pack at putting Trump in check — and even Senate Republicans have privately observed that Ryan has adopted what they’ve dubbed “the McConnell strategy.”
“No-drama McConnell,” said his chief deputy, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “I prefer Sen. McConnell’s approach. It’s really not our job to provide running commentary on what’s going on over there.”
Now instead of trying to get ahead of the president’s erratic nature, Ryan has joined McConnell in a deliberate pace of reacting to the latest news out of the White House. After Trump suddenly fired Comey two weeks ago, Ryan waited more than 24 hours to respond, even as several Hill Republicans sounded alarms at what looked to some like political retaliation.
When Ryan finally weighed in, he parroted White House talking points, telling Fox News that Trump had a right to fire Comey because people had lost confidence in him.
In a statement for this story, Ryan’s office said the speaker takes Congress’ oversight responsibility seriously, noting he welcomed news of a special counsel and supported Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s calls to ask Comey to testify.
“We take our duty to conduct rigorous oversight as seriously as we take following through on the agenda we promised throughout the campaign,” Ryan’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in a statement.
McConnell has refused to let his caucuses’ near-daily party lunches get derailed by the president, keeping the GOP laser-focused on healthcare to avoid creating the unnecessary friction with Trump that would surely leak out. Ryan too would rather talk about tax policy or budget matters, even gently lecturing one reporter earlier this week for inquiring about the possibility of a President Mike Pence, should Trump be impeached.
“That’s the reality of being speaker: [Ryan has] probably got to be more circumspect than any other member,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, a vocal Trump critic. “Nobody wants to be on the receiving side of a Trump tweet or quote, and part of it may have been based on history learned, given the last back-and-forth they went through.”
Very rarely, their apparent frustration with Trump seeps through — but just barely. Last week, McConnell called for "a little less drama from the White House." And on Wednesday, Ryan pushed back on Trump’s description of Comey as a "nut job.”
But both McConnell and Ryan, by and large, seem to end up far from the limelight when crises erupt out of the administration. It’s a stark contrast to outspoken lawmakers like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who on Wednesday praised McConnell and Ryan for keeping it low key (“You can’t react to everything that the president says”) before showing the relative freedom that he enjoys and that party leaders do not.
“His latest comments to this guy Duterte?” McCain said, with an incredulous scowl at Trump’s praise for the Filipino president’s extrajudicial war on drugs. “It’s probably more important in [Ryan and McConnell’s] eyes that they get along with the president.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.