As Russia allegations mount, is this the final straw for the GOP?
WASHINGTON — After standing by Donald Trump during the rockiest launch of a presidency in modern times, key Senate Republicans began edging away from him on Tuesday amid new disclosures that he gave top secret intelligence to the Russians, and attempted to tamp down an FBI investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Senate Republicans learned during the day that the president last week shared classified information, reportedly gathered by Israel, with visiting Russian officials.
“Wait a minute. Stop,” said Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, when a reporter told him the latest twist to the White House imbroglio. “Israel shared the information with the president, who then shared the information with Russia?”
Also Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey — whom Trump fired last week — to stand down on his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, according to notes Comey kept from a February dinner meeting with the president.
On Tuesday night, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, reportedly said at a dinner that Trump administration scandals are reaching a “Watergate size and scale,” according to the news website The Hill.
Democrats pounced on the latest bombshell.
“You’re watching an obstruction of justice investigation developing in real time,’’ Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said to reporters.
But Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said, “The burden is on The New York Times” to produce the memo, although other media sources confirmed the contents of it.
For Republicans earlier in the day, there was a sense in the Senate that the talking points coming from the White House were shifting — and that if senators went out on a limb to defend Trump, the president might just saw off the branch. Plus, there was a growing consensus that the perpetual state of crisis in Washington would not abate anytime soon.
That meant there were suddenly more quips from Republicans on Capitol Hill about Trump than compliments. There were more sighs. More nervous laughs.
“I’d like to have less drama,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell during his weekly news conference.
He labored to change the topic from the news of Trump’s intelligence disclosure, which was first reported Monday by The Washington Post, to the failure of Obamacare. He did not succeed.
“Do you have concerns about the president’s ability to properly handle classified information?” one reporter asked.
McConnell waited a full five seconds, as cameras clicked, before he offered a one word answer: “No.”
“Are you starting to lose confidence in President Trump?” McConnell replied: “No.”
Republican senators were, however, starting to lose patience with Trump.
“Governing tweetstorm to tweetstorm is not a sustainable strategy,” said Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a Republican, in an interview with CNN.
He added that “leaks are dangerous” and said “we want those people out in the field that are our assets or our ally’s assets to know what they’re doing is going to be protected.”
Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, said it would be “very troubling” if Trump did share “sensitive reporting” with the Russians.
Several news organizations have confirmed the Post’s initial story. But the White House initially disputed it.
Then Tuesday morning, Trump himself took to Twitter to undercut those denials. “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets.
General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, embraced the new line on Tuesday morning saying that it was “wholly appropriate” for Trump to share intelligence with the Russians.
But senators on the Hill, whiplashed by the various explanations, tended to disagree that sharing secret intelligence with the Russians was a good idea.
“The disclosure of highly classified information has the potential to jeopardize sources and to discourage our allies from sharing future information vital to our security,” said Collins.
Making matters worse, the White House was not returning calls to Republican allies, which was also causing consternation.
‘‘Maybe they’re busy,” offered Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He said he’s been waiting for an explanation from the White House about exactly what was said to the Russians in the Oval Office on Wednesday.
‘‘My major concern right now is that I don’t know what the president said,” Burr said. ‘‘I’d like to think somebody from the White House who was in the room is going to get on the phone and tell me what they said.’’
Others expected the transcript from that meeting or a briefing.
“If it’s information that was shared with the Russian ambassador, it seems to me it would be okay to be shared with US senators,” said Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said he’d withhold judgment until he learns more “in a classified setting” — a comment that implied such a briefing would take place.
Others looked beyond the current crisis and mused that a staff shake-up might calm the waters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Such a change has been rumored for the past week.
“They need to move to organize themselves in a very different way, and hopefully they will,” said Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “They’re all very aware of that. Hopefully they’re going to move to address it.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus are frequently discussed as staffers in danger of getting axed. Published reports also said Tuesday that Trump finds General McMaster to be “a pain.”
But any whiff of tension between McMaster and Trump would cause more headaches for the White House on the Hill, since the general is extremely well respected among the Republican senators who are going wobbly on Trump.
“He is a man of great character and integrity, and I admire him enormously,” said McCain.