President Trump’s troubles deepened Wednesday as two congressional committees intensified their oversight, seeking memos and testimony from fired FBI Director James B. Comey.
The stepped-up investigations, along with the appointment of former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to serve as a special counsel, signaled that the crisis was not going away anytime soon.
But the moves also helped provide some political cover and breathing space for anxious Republicans, who can now point to the formal inquiries as evidence of their action and a reason to reserve judgment until investigations are complete.
"I don't get all wee-wee'd up about this," said Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa). "People in Iowa care about jobs."
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said he was not going to respond to “speculation or innuendo” from the torrent of allegations swirling around Trump.
“It is obvious there are some people out there who want to harm the president,” Ryan said after a meeting of House Republicans at GOP headquarters on Capitol Hill.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions," Ryan acknowledged. “The last thing I'm going to do is prejudge anything. I'm a person who wants to get the facts .... and follow the facts wherever they may lead.”
Two House Republicans, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a libertarian-leaning member of the Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents a swing district in Florida, became the first Republicans to publicly concede that if Trump did indeed obstruct justice, it could be an impeachable offense.
But those lawmakers were outliers among Republicans . Many others said they would wait for the committees to conduct their inquiries.
“We’re not going to do this on the basis of newspaper stories,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican. “We’re going to do our own investigation — get to the bottom of this.”
The White House is under fire on several fronts, including allegations that Trump wanted Comey to halt the FBI investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn was forced to resign after misleading other White House officials about his contacts with Russian diplomats.
Trump is also facing questions over his campaign’s possible links to Russians amid their alleged interference in the 2016 election and the president’s sharing of highly classified intelligence about an Islamic State terrorist threat with Russian officials at the Oval Office.
The administration has denied any wrongdoing, saying the president was “wholly” within his authority to share the intelligence with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. The White House also denied that Trump intervened in the Flynn investigation.
On Wednesday, both the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the FBI to turn over all memos between Comey and the president. The intelligence panel invited the fired FBI director to testify, and the judiciary panel is expected to do the same.
"We’ve reached out," said Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"We don’t lack for questions," said Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia. “I don’t think I know of any member I've talked to publicly or privately — Democrat or Republican — that doesn’t think that Jim Comey deserves a chance to tell his side of the story."
The House also stepped up its scrutiny as House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked the FBI to submit "all memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings" between Trump and Comey. Chaffetz also invited Comey to address his panel next Wednesday.
That could force the White House to respond to developments in the domestic crises while the president is in the middle of his first foreign trip.
“The problem is, all this stuff here at home is going to follow him overseas,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “My advice to him is to just stay disciplined, stay focused, and deliver on the world stage."
Democrats, meanwhile, were split over whether Trump’s actions could result in impeachment, preferring instead to pressure Republicans to look deeper into the questions surrounding the president.
“They do as little as humanly possible just to claim that they're doing something,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said of Republicans.
Several Republicans have joined Democrats in calling for an independent committee to investigate, the latest being Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who has been critical of Trump's overtures to Russia.
But when Democrats forced a House floor vote Wednesday on their bill to initiate such a panel under a special procedure, it failed along a largely party-line vote.
House Republicans said they didn't spend much time discussing Trump during their first meeting after a weeklong recess, and instead focused on upcoming special elections for vacant GOP seats that are facing stiff challenges from Democrats.
Freshman Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said Trump was sometimes a "victim" of his off-the-cuff style.
"He jokes a lot," said Comer, who has spent time with the president. "This is a guy that doesn't measure everything he says like most politicians, and this is the kind of leader Americans voted for, and I think he deserves a chance."
"I believe the administration needs to reboot its efforts,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “The president needs to listen to his advisors.”
“Let's just take a deep breath,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “That's what I’m going to do.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has remained circumspect about the news swirling from the White House. “This is all about finding out as much as we can,” Rubio said. “We need as many facts as we can [get]; then we’ll make a decision.”
“We could do with less drama, it would be nice,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Oversight committee. “We have enormous challenges facing this nation and we should be focusing on those.”
Said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): “We need to get the issue completely resolved. It is a serious issue.”
Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli and Katherine Skiba contributed to this report.
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