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Why Senate Republicans are fracturing over Donald Jr.’s testimony

The latest Trump loyalty test pits Republicans against one of their own.

President Trump Holds Rally In Green Bay, Wisconsin
Donald Trump Jr. greets supporters of US President Donald Trump before he speaks at a Make America Great Again rally on April 27, 2019, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Darren Hauck/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

It looks like Donald Trump Jr. will be testifying in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee after all — an appearance requested by a Republican senator that was on the verge of falling through after fierce blowback from his own party.

While Trump Jr. has testified in front of the Senate before, this closed-door appearance — which he has reportedly requested be limited to four hours for a date in mid-June — would mark the first time he’s done so after special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report was released. It offers an opportunity for lawmakers to press him on instances when his previous testimony does not match up with Mueller’s findings, including statements he’s made about a 2016 Trump Tower meeting when he met with a Russian attorney about dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The younger Trump’s agreement to testify, which the New York Times and CNN reported Tuesday, would end a heated back-and-forth over a subpoena the Republican-led panel had issued for his presence earlier this year. As the Times reports, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) decided to move forward with the subpoena — the first that any congressional committee is known to have approved for a member of Donald Trump’s family — after Donald Jr. promised to appear before the panel and backed out twice.

Burr’s decision roiled his own party, many of whom questioned the move and argued that it contradicted their claims — and the president’s — that the Russia investigation was, indeed, over.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the president’s closest allies, was among the most outspoken: He first argued that Trump Jr. should simply ignore the subpoena and then said he should “plead the Fifth” when he appears. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others swooped in to defend Burr, touting the perception of his evenhanded leadership of the Intelligence Committee amid its two-year probe into Russian interference. “None of us tell Chairman Burr how to run his committee,” McConnell noted on Tuesday.

The disagreement over Donald Jr.’s testimony is just the latest example of the Republican conference fracturing in recent months: Senate Republicans split over a resolution to stop the Saudi-led war in Yemen and they also were divided over a measure condemning the national emergency Trump declared to obtain funding for his border wall.

Each of these issues — including this one — have ultimately been a test of the same thing: just how loyal Republicans are to Donald Trump.

Burr’s subpoena didn’t fit into the narrative Trump has been pushing after the Mueller report

Among the Republicans who criticized Burr, their main gripe centered on his decision to refocus the spotlight on the Trump campaign and questions of Russian interference, something they considered over and done with after the Mueller report didn’t establish that the Trump campaign criminally conspired on Russian election interference.

“Apparently the Republican chair of the Senate Intel Committee didn’t get the memo from the Majority Leader that this case was closed,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) wrote in a tweet.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a potentially vulnerable Republican in 2020, also questioned why Burr — his fellow North Carolinian in the upper chamber — needed Trump Jr. to testify further after he completed meetings with the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees in 2017.

“Dems have made it clear this is all about politics,” he wrote in a tweet. “It’s time to move on and start focusing on issues that matter to Americans.”

And even Republicans like Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), who argued that Donald Jr. shouldn’t ignore the subpoena, have suggested that they’re eager to end the scrutiny on this issue.

“I think it’d be fine if Don Jr. [pleaded the Fifth]. My constituents are tired of this whole thing, and it’s long been settled in their minds and more theatrics aren’t necessary,” Cramer told reporters on Tuesday. “What I don’t agree with is that he should just ignore it. I’ve never thought that.”

As much as Republicans want to put the Mueller investigation behind them, however, Burr is still wrapping up his own bipartisan probe into Russian interference alongside Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-VA). He noted earlier this year that the committee’s report was nearing completion, and added that it hasn’t found evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Contrary to some of the swipes from his colleagues, Burr’s reasons for bringing in Donald Jr. are tied to wrapping up loose ends in a review that’s widely been seen as independent and nonpartisan. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), an intel committee member, had come to his defense last week: “He’s a good chairman, and I don’t have any problem with his decision,” Blunt told Politico.

News reports indicate that Burr wanted to speak with Donald Jr., in order to suss out moments when his prior testimony about the Trump Tower meeting and potential construction projects Donald Trump was eyeing in Moscow didn’t align with Mueller’s descriptions.

While Donald Jr. said he wasn’t particularly involved with conversations about Trump’s Moscow construction talks, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen said he had spoken about the matter with members of the president’s family on roughly 10 occasions. Additionally, it found that Donald Jr. had disclosed information about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting to more people than he had previously claimed.

Republicans turned on Burr to prove that they’re allies to Trump

Although many Republicans, including McConnell, have stressed their respect for Burr’s role at the helm of the Intelligence Committee, some of those who turned on him in the wake of the subpoena appear to have done so to prove their loyalty to the president.

As some of Trump’s allies told the New York Times, the president could have potentially endorsed one of Tillis’s primary challengers if the senator hadn’t spoken out on Trump Jr.’s behalf. Already, earlier this year, Tillis was caught in an awkward situation when he expressed disagreement about Trump’s declaration of national emergency, and abruptly changed course after conservatives in his state threatened his reelection bid.

While many of the Republicans criticizing Burr are not actually on the committee issuing the subpoena, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who is a member of the Intelligence Committee, had previously emphasized his disagreement with Burr’s decision as well. “At some point, this is not about finding facts,” he said last week. “We have an important job to do to try to keep the intelligence committee out of politics.”

As things stand, it appears Donald Jr.’s decision to testify has ameliorated some of the party conflict, with lawmakers now waiting to see how the committee’s own report on Russia shakes out.

“I gave the responsibility of this investigation to Chairman Burr two years ago,” McConnell said on Tuesday. “He’s indicated publicly that they will find no collusion and we anticipate getting that report sometime soon.”

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