Politics

Indictments? What indictments? Republicans in Congress try to focus on taxes

After a press conference on judicial nominees, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (left) ducked behind a row of flags and out a back door on Monday as questions about the Russia inquiry started.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
After a press conference on judicial nominees, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (left) ducked behind a row of flags and out a back door on Monday as questions about the Russia inquiry started.

WASHINGTON — The first criminal charges in the investigation of President Trump’s campaign are generating fierce headwinds, but resolute Republicans in Congress insist they will not be blown off course in their quest for tax cuts.

The president, who rarely sticks to a disciplined message, is not making it easy. On Tuesday morning he blasted out tweets attacking the investigation. But then he added, sort of helpfully:

“I hope people will start to focus on our Massive Tax Cuts for Business (jobs) and the Middle Class (in addition to Democrat corruption)!’’

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On Capitol Hill, Republicans have been taking great pains to avoid talking about Monday’s developments in the Russia probe: the indictment of former campaign chief Paul Manafort on money-laundering charges and news that former campaign aide George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russians.

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“That really isn’t our job, that’s not our wheelhouse,” protested the number two Senate GOP leader, John Cornyn of Texas, responding to the explosion of questions about the Mueller indictments Monday. “The special counsel was appointed by the Department of Justice, and that is the person you need to be asking the questions, that’s not our responsibility.”

At a press conference where Cornyn and other Republicans showed up to talk about court nominees, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell slipped out of the room before any questions could be asked.

And Iowa GOP Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee (which is leading one of several congressional probes into Russia’s election meddling), was so eager to avoid the topic he pushed behind the American flags arrayed behind the senators speaking to the press and escaped out an ornate wooden door just as the Mueller-related questions started.

Republicans are desperate for a major legislative win, after fumbling their years-long promise to repeal Barack Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. Delivering a big tax cut is supposed to be the one, placating donors and base voters alike ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, now a year away.

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But Mueller and the latest revelations in the Russia investigation may have just made the GOP’s job a lot harder.

“Everything like that does take away from getting things done,” admitted Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, the leading author of the tax bill in the Senate, when asked about the impact of Mueller’s latest bombshells Monday evening. “Frankly I’m having a rough time seeing why in the world they’re indicting [Manafort], but you know it’s just the way it is around here.”

Republican leaders have set out an aggressive timeline for accomplishing what many consider the hardest policy task in town. They’re vowing to deliver a final bill to Trump’s desk by the end of the year. But they face numerous challenges, including polls showing that the legislation — which Democrats are hammering as a giveaway to the rich — is not very popular with the public.

There’s also the issue of keeping Trump on message. Republicans say they’re counting on the president to help sell the plan to average Americans across the country. But bad news has a tendency to dominate the commander in chief’s mind — and Twitter feed — which could further muddle the GOP’s tax message in the weeks ahead.

“Tax reform is the biggest of all lifts, and you need everybody, but particularly the administration and the president, rowing in the same direction,” said Chris Krueger, a policy analyst at the Cowen Washington Research Group, a consulting firm. He likened Trump’s approach to responding to controversies as “putting fires out with gasoline,” adding “that is not going to help Republicans pass legislation that hasn’t been passed in 30 years.”

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It was clear on Monday that, at least this week, the Russia cloud had returned to loom over everything Republicans would rather be talking about.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was questioned about the indictments of Manafort and longtime sidekick Rick Gates during a Wisconsin radio interview that was supposed to be focused on the House GOP’s tax push.

“I really don’t have anything to add, other than nothing’s going to derail what we’re doing in Congress,” Ryan replied.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders kicked off her daily briefing Monday with a five-minute riff on the wisdom of Trump’s tax plan, only to field question after question about Mueller’s charges.

McConnell, at his weekly leadership press conference Tuesday, gave the question a solid punt: “The special counsel has his job to do, the job we have here in the Senate is the investigation being carried out by the Intelligence Committee.”

But Republican lawmakers have gotten a lot of practice during Trump’s time in office at weathering passing storms of scandal. Republicans on and off the Hill say the Mueller probe won’t prove much of a distraction.

“Congressional Republicans have done a very, very good job for nearly two years now of tuning out some of the unwanted noise that goes with the president, even before he was president, and continuing to focus on getting things done for the American people,” said Michael Steel, who served as spokesman for former House speaker John Boehner.

Indeed, by Tuesday some congressional Republicans seemed to have gotten their talking points down, lining up with the White House argument that the new charges have nothing to do with Trump.

“My initial reaction is if these allegations are true, how these individuals made it out of the birth canal? I mean it’s pretty stupid not to pay your taxes and it’s pretty stupid to agree to meet with an FBI agent and then to lie to them,” said Louisiana GOP Senator John Kennedy.

“But for the life of me I don’t know what that has to do with President Trump’s campaign other than the fact that he may have hired some people that he shouldn’t have hired but that happens all the time. That’s why you fire people.”

Not all Republicans were so tightly on message. Arizona Senator John McCain, who has become one of the president’s most outspoken critics, reminded reporters that he’s previously likened the Russia investigation to a centipede.

“There are more shoes to drop.”

Democrats in Congress and their left-leaning allies have their own concerns. Some fear the media frenzy kicked up by the criminal charges will make it harder to focus public attention on negative aspects of the GOP tax plan.

“There’s a risk that the explosive news about the Mueller investigation could take the public’s eye off the ball,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director for MoveOn.org.

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@
globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.