When President Trump sent out a crude tweet about the appearance of MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski late last month, several GOP lawmakers, such as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, criticized the comments on Twitter. But when much more significant news broke in recent days — that Donald Trump Jr. once sought negative information about Hillary Clinton from sources tied to the Russian government — Republicans in Congress responded very differently: with muted criticism and, wherever possible, outright silence.
Reporters have had to chase down congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill to ask questions about the controversy. Few Republican lawmakers have commented on social media. And when Republicans have chosen to answer questions about Trump Jr., they have avoided bashing the president himself by, in many cases, offering careful, measured statements that highlight the role of the special counsel and congressional committees investigating issues related to the Trump campaign and Russia.
That caution is significant because it is the Republican reaction — and especially the congressional Republican reaction — to Russia stories that really matters most. Numerous recent news stories have explored the legal implications of Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer and whether it could violate campaign finance rules or other laws. (The recent developments also ensnared Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, who attended the meeting with Trump Jr.) But when it comes to President Trump, the Russia story is a political debate as much as a legal one. It’s not clear whether a president can even be indicted for a crime, much less convicted. In many ways, Congress is the sole judge and jury of a president: It can impeach him, remove him from office or call for his resignation. And right now, Congress is led by Trump’s party.
So it doesn’t matter much that Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia thinks Trump Jr. may have committed perjury or even treason, or that former federal prosecutors are telling Politico that the Trump Jr. news is “extremely damaging” and “shows an intent to collude with Russian government.” What matters is what Republicans think. Here’s what they’re saying so far:
- Few Republicans took to Twitter to offer remarks about the Trump Jr. controversy, and those who did were measured. Lee Zeldin, a House Republican from New York, tweeted, “That meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no.” But Zeldin also said in the tweet, in case anyone was questioning his loyalty to the president, “I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to succeed.”
- House Republican leaders have said little about the issue, with Speaker Paul Ryan instead tweeting about tax reform and his meeting with Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs. House members who discussed the issue in television interviews generally downplayed the controversy. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, suggested in a Fox News interview that the president’s son may have been “duped” into attending the meeting, downplaying concerns about whether Trump Jr. was seeking negative information on Clinton from Russia. Appearing on CNN, Florida’s Ted Yoho said he “probably would have done the same thing” as Trump Jr. and attended the meeting, which he cast as “opposition research.”
- A bunch of GOP senators were essentially forced to comment on the issue because reporters waited outside a lunch where the members had been meeting about health care. Their comments were largely muted.
- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sidestepped questions about Trump Jr. and the meeting, noting that the Senate Intelligence Committee is running a Russia probe. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chair of the intelligence committee and therefore perhaps the second-most-important Republican in the chamber when it comes to Russia issues, told CNN that the Trump Jr. meeting should be “fully vetted” by his committee.
- Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, asked by a reporter if the new developments concerned him, said simply “no.”
A few Republicans were more critical, but they were the usual suspects, members of what is essentially a Trump-skeptic wing in the Senate. Arizona Sen. John McCain predicted, “There’ll be many more shoes that drop.” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested that Trump campaign officials should not have taken the meeting. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said that Trump Jr. should be interviewed by the committee. All three senators are longtime Trump critics who declined to back him during the 2016 campaign, but even their statements were hardly blistering.
- When lawmakers refuse to comment, conservative media outlets can provide hints of where Republican thinking is headed. But so far, they suggest little change of direction. The National Review and The Weekly Standard blasted Trump’s campaign aides for the meeting and called for more investigations of Trump and his campaign’s connections to Russia. “Donald Trump Jr.’s emails are damning,” National Review’s David French wrote. The Standard’s editors wrote a joint piece under the headline, “The Trump Administration Has Forfeited the Right to be Trusted on Russia.” But those reactions are hardly surprising: Both publications were deeply skeptical of Trump during the campaign.
Fox News, which dwarfs those publications in terms of audience and influence on the right, reacted differently, casting Trump Jr. as a “victim.” Sean Hannity, perhaps the most pro-Trump member of the national media, interviewed Trump Jr. on Tuesday evening and allowed him to repeatedly attack the press.
- One Republican gave a more negative response than expected: Vice President Mike Pence.
“The vice president is working every day to advance the president’s agenda,” Pence’s press secretary, Marc Lotter, said in a statement on Tuesday. “He was not aware of the meeting. He is also not focused on stories about the campaign — especially those pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign.”
That might look like a defense of the president. But read the statement closely. It claims that the vice president did not know about the meeting and points out that the meeting occurred before Pence joined the ticket, which sounds like Pence suggesting that the Russia controversy does not involve him and drawing a line between himself and the president’s son, son-in-law and ultimately Trump himself. He does not defend Trump Jr. or Kushner at all.
But overall, the Republicans’ muted reaction should not be surprising. Even after the Watergate break-in, the resignations of some of Richard Nixon’s top aides and his dismissal of the attorney general and deputy attorney general, many in his party stood by him until his resignation. Presidential scandals have revealed a consistent pattern: Members of Congress largely back the president if he’s a member of their party.
This doesn’t mean Republicans will back Trump forever, particularly if the special counsel or the congressional committees unearth more unflattering evidence. And if Democrats win control of the House or the Senate in 2018, that will change the tenor of Congress’s Russia debate.
But for now, Republicans are in charge, and they don’t seem to be abandoning Trump yet.