Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chair, was indicted for federal crimes on Monday, the biggest development yet in the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. It is perhaps the most significant political development of the year.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans responded as they always have: demurring and pledging not to be distracted from their goal of deep tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, mimicking the White House’s attempts to deflect attention to investigations into Hillary Clinton or, in many cases, avoiding the questions altogether.
House Speaker Paul Ryan typified the GOP’s response: "I really don’t have anything to add other than nothing is going to derail what we’re doing in Congress,” he said. “We’re working on solving people’s problems.”
“I don’t know enough about it,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UH) told reporters in the Capitol on Monday when asked about the indictments. “I do know Paul Manafort ... I’d be surprised if Paul broke any laws.”
Top Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (IA) — who chairs the Judiciary Committee, which is investigating Russia’s alleged interference in the election — avoided the subject more dramatically. He escaped a press conference on religious liberties after a reporter inquired about Manafort, nearly knocking over the American flags set up behind the podium. In a statement earlier in the day, Grassley said “it’s important to let our legal system run its course.”
Trump has already signaled that he might be willing to fire special counsel Robert Mueller if the Russia probe goes places he doesn’t like. Republicans in Congress could take steps to protect the investigation from White House meddling. But at least for now, they are refusing to do any such thing.
“This is dicey because this is not a time to be unequivocal — bold statements are risky right now in either direction, attacking [Trump] or not,” Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, told me. "My advice to them right now would be: Be very careful not to jump the gun."
After all, there are tax cuts to pass.
Republicans don’t want to talk about the Russia indictments
This was supposed to be a big week for Republicans in Congress: The House is set to unveil its tax overhaul bill on Wednesday, getting the ball rolling on the GOP’s top legislative priority.
Tax reform was going to be hard enough on its own. Overhauling the nation’s tax code comes with a lot of winners and losers, and as Obamacare repeal already showed, Republicans can’t just expect their members to fall in line on a major agenda item. Trump was expected to be a key player in the tax debate, providing leadership and direction from the White House.
But the indictments of Manafort and his associate Rick Gates put have shifted the spotlight back to White House scandals. Republicans will now be occupied with uncomfortable questions about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia and the president’s inevitable preoccupation with a probe that cuts so close to his inner circle.
In the Capitol on Friday, a number Senate Republicans deferred questions about the significance of the indictments to Mueller — even as their Democratic colleagues appeared eager to take up the question.
“That’s Robert Mueller’s wheelhouse, not ours,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said. Asked if the probe could derail the party’s tax reform push, Cornyn acknowledged worrying that it would. “That’s what we’re working on,” he said.
Similarly, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) told reporters Monday that they should direct their questions to Mueller. Added Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), a harsh Trump critic: “I don’t really have a reaction — it’s a little bit out of my area.”
But Trump’s congressional loyalists, like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), did their part in forwarding the White House’s message on the indictments: saying the charges had nothing to do with Trump and attempting to turn the focus to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“So far I haven’t seen that our president was a part of it or was knowledgeable about it,” Inhofe told me. “We don’t know what’s going to come. Apparently there are going to be more indictments. We will wait and see until more things are exposed. In the meantime, don’t forget we still have all the Hillary activity.”
In the House, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who has a close relationship with the president, said he is not a “big fan” of how the investigation has played out.
“With Mueller, we don’t know what the crime is,” Meadow said. “It’s not the way you would normally think about trying to mete out justice.”
Republican could protect Mueller — but so far, they haven’t
The White House says it has no “plans” to remove Mueller for now, but Trump has raged against the indictments, and the Russia investigation altogether, seeking to turn the blame to Clinton and Democrats. If Trump were to fire Mueller in an attempt to end this investigation, the ensuing political crisis would be unmatched in recent US history.
It’s a crisis Republicans could head off — if they wanted to.
Congress has several options available for protecting Mueller’s investigation, as Vox’s Jeff Stein previously reported. At least two bipartisan bills have already been introduced that would make it harder for Trump to dismiss Mueller.
One bill is from Senate Judiciary Committee members Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Chris Coons (D-DE); the other is from Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). They would achieve similar ends in slightly different ways: giving the federal courts oversight of a special counsel’s dismissal and mandating that Mueller could only be removed by a Senate-confirmed attorney general.
“Special counsels must act within boundaries, but they must also be protected,” Graham said in a statement when the bill was introduced this August. “Our bill allows judicial review of any decision to terminate a special counsel to make sure it’s done for the reasons cited in the regulation rather than political motivation.”
But there was no indication that Congress would take such a step, even with the stakes significantly raised after the Manafort and Gates indictments.
“I think it’s speculative at this point,” Cornyn said when asked about the congressional bill to protect Mueller.
“I don’t think that’s needed,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said of Congress acting to protect Mueller’s position.
Clarification: Due to a spotty phone connection, Rep. Mark Meadows was misheard to have said “weed out justice” instead of “mete out justice.”