In the wake of revelations that President Donald Trump had shared highly classified information in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, Sen. Bob Corker made a splash on Monday afternoon when he stated that the White House was in a “downward spiral.” The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made clear on Tuesday that he had expressed this concern “very directly” to the “principals” at the White House, too. He was then asked, as many senators were on the day after the Russia revelation, whether he had faith in President Trump’s ability to handle classified information.
Corker paused, shrugged, and said, “sure.” It was less than convincing.
Still, it was more of a direct answer than Sen. John Thune would give reporters following the Republicans’ caucus lunch. Does he trust the president to handle classified information, like the highly sensitive intelligence he was blabbing to the Russians?
“We’re getting more information,” he responded. “I think there’s some questions the White House needs to answer about what happened at that particular meeting.”
Another reporter in the huddle followed up, restating the question: Do you trust him to handle sensitive, classified information?
“Well, I think the president is the commander in chief; he decides what is classified information and what is not,” Thune said, still not answering. “And I think most of us fully admit we all make mistakes, obviously.” Who among us hasn’t revealed closely held intelligence secrets, provided by our close ally, to a chief adversary, so as to impress them? Mistakes are made.
Senate Republicans are past the point where they feel confident covering up for President Trump, touting the White House line and saying everything is just fine, nothing to see here. It is no longer tenable. They acknowledge that something is wrong here that needs to be fixed. They’re just not quite willing to say that the problem is President Trump, as it obviously is.
The superficial complaint that many of them, including Thune, Sen. Susan Collins, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will pass to the press corps is one of inconvenience: that the “distractions” or “drama” coming from the White House divert their and the public’s attention from important health care and tax reform efforts. (I’m not sure to what degree they should see this as a negative, but that’s another story.)
“Can we have a crisis-free day?” Collins said to reporters Monday, after the news of Trump’s gossipy meeting with the Russians broke. “That’s all I’m asking.”
Sen. Collins’ request would not be met on Tuesday. Late in the afternoon, the New York Times reported that then–FBI Director James Comey had written a memo in which he claimed the president had asked him to “let this go,” meaning the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. After this, several leading Democrats—including Sens. Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and Richard Blumenthal—began to toss around the term obstruction of justice more freely. Sen. Angus King, meanwhile, was using the I-word. Republican senators coming out of a late afternoon vote, for their part, said that they hadn’t had time to read the story yet. Which may have been true: It had broken as they were on the floor. But they’ll be asked about this on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. How can they possibly deflect this one?
“To be really blunt, I think my Republican colleagues are shaken by the continual upheaval,” Blumenthal said Tuesday afternoon. “Any rational observer would have to question the competence and control the White House has over itself. And that the president has.”
“I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House,” McConnell said during his own press conference earlier on Tuesday, reiterating comments he made even earlier in the morning.
McConnell, the most disciplined communicator in Washington, D.C., was able to keep it together when asked whether he had concerns about Trump’s ability to manage classified information. He was silent for a couple of seconds, giggled to himself, and finally said, in a very soft voice, “no.”
The line about White House “drama” serving as a distraction from the Republican agenda is damning enough from a political perspective, national security questions aside. The GOP leaders are implying that they could fulfill the White House’s agenda if only the White House could get out of their way. It’s not a note of confidence from the president’s party some four months into his administration.
The “distraction” talking point may be the story that most of them are willing to share, but the actual problem seems to run much deeper. Consider how Thune, in his gaggle with reporters, addressed the issue of the “distractions.”
“These are daily—not daily but seems like [it’s] lately daily—distractions,” he said, “and you just have to manage around them.”
They’re more than just “distractions.” They’re self-inflicted errors from a president who doesn’t know how to do the job and apparently can’t control his most basic impulses. Republicans don’t just have to “manage around” the distractions. They have to “manage around” him, and that will never change.
Few Republican senators said Tuesday that they were hoping to hear more from Trump himself on the issue of what he said to the Russians. They usually might say that they want to hear from “the White House,” as Thune offered, or specifically name-check National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, perceived at the start of the week as one of the last presidential advisers with credibility intact (credibility he’s depleting in short order as he continues to serve as the public face of this latest spin job). McMaster’s deployment to the press briefing dais Tuesday morning was, as much as anything, an effort to show Capitol Hill that a grown-up was in charge of the situation and that the presidency was in good hands: McMaster’s.
“I take General McMaster at his word,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said Tuesday, following McMaster’s weasel-worded assurance in the briefing that Trump hadn’t compromised any sources or methods. Sen. Roger Wicker admitted that he hadn’t had a chance to watch the briefing but that he was “sure that answered a lot of questions.”
What they were expressing faith—or hope, more likely—in was McMaster’s ability to mop up the president’s latest mess and make it go away. They expect him to manage around a president who’s shown no signs he can do the job properly—manage Republican PR, manage national security, manage reportedly fraying relationships with our allies and apparent succor being offered to adversaries. The president is more than just a “distraction.” Who’s to say how this failed experiment ends?