WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in Congress Tuesday were forced to respond to — or dodge — questions on the latest eye-popping revelations that Donald Trump Jr. enthusiastically welcomed the Russian government’s help obtaining dirt to help his father’s presidential bid.
It was another indication of how the Trump administration’s ever-darkening Russia scandal is draining away political capital and eating up time as the GOP struggles to gain momentum for its legislative agenda.
The day followed an increasingly familiar pattern in Donald Trump’s Washington. First step: mind-boggling revelation — in this case, the president’s son posting on Twitter what appeared to be a proverbial smoking gun of an e-mail chain laying out that he was told ahead of time that his meeting with a Russian lawyer was ‘‘part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.’’
Democratic condemnation quickly followed, as did some measured “This Is Concerning, Must Be Looked Into’’-type responses from Republicans. Plus a lot of GOP lawmakers doing their best to avoid the topic entirely.
Senior Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah called the news “overblown” and the e-mails from the eldest Trump son not “relevant to the Trump administration.”
North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee leading the congressional probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, ignored reporters swarming around him, asking about the latest development, as his made his way from the Senate subway to a regular caucus lunch, while an aide repeatedly bellowed, “Give us some room!”
“That’s the very thing we should not be distracted by,” said North Carolina GOP Senator Thom Tillis when asked at a press conference on health care about Trump Jr.’s meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his leadership team focused their weekly briefing on the latest health care news, including McConnell’s decision to delay the August recess to continue working on a GOP bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But reporters wanted to talk about Russia and Trump Jr. McConnell parried with a general statement about the ongoing Senate Intelligence Committee probe. “I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of whatever may have happened.”
Democrats, long ready to believe the worst of President Trump, seemed to be stunned by the latest twist.
“This is a pattern of lies that is deeply, deeply disturbing. For a long time we saw a lot of smoke but no fire. You’re seeing the fire today,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, told reporters.
Some Democrats went so far as to call the younger Trump’s e-mail chain evidence of treason, including Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton. “If this isn’t treasonous, I’m not sure what is,” the Salem Democrat tweeted.
Representative Joe Kennedy III also appeared to weigh in.
Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, declined to characterize Trump Jr.’s actions that way but was otherwise scathing in his assessment of the latest evidence. He said the younger Trump’s e-mails are part of a larger pattern in which Trump administration officials at first deny any kind of contact with Russians, only to reverse course when the information comes out elsewhere.
“They’ve had to recant and try to make excuses. There are no excuses for what we’ve seen in the last 24 hours,” said Warner, who has previously said the Senate Intelligence panel will want to hear from Trump Jr. as part of its investigation.
He flatly rejected the argument that perhaps the meeting with Russians could be the innocent missteps of a political novice.
“Lying is not a rookie mistake,” Warner said. He also highlighted that Trump Jr. said in one e-mail that negative information about Hillary Clinton would be particularly good “later in the summer,” and noted how it turned out that is about the time that Clinton’s hacked e-mails were released.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for Trump Jr. to testify publicly, and demanded the House GOP leadership stop dragging its feet and pass a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill the Senate sent them weeks ago. That bill, which would empower Congress to block any moves by the White House to soften sanctions against Russia as well as toughen existing sanctions, passed the Senate 98-2 but has been bogged down in procedural and partisan squabbles in the House.
“Between these revelations and the president’s horrendous handling of the meeting with Mr. Putin, it’s clear that Congress needs to step in,” said Schumer, accusing House GOP leaders for inventing “excuses to avoid moving forward.”
Speaker Paul Ryan’s office says the hold up lies with House Democrats, who are blocking action until they get a change to the bill.
Some Republican senators voiced concern over Trump Jr.’s e-mails, albeit in more measured tones than Democrats.
“The e-mails deserve a thorough investigation,” said Maine GOP Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I believe that the committee should interview Donald Trump Jr., as well as everyone else who was involved in attending the meeting or setting up the meeting. Until we have a fuller picture, it would be premature for me to reach any judgment,” she said. Collins said she hoped Burr and Warner would ask key players to turn over any other related documents because “there may be many more that we don’t have access to.”
“Another shoe just dropped, as I told you weeks ago,” said frequent Trump critic John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona. “More shoes will drop.”