New details about President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey are unraveling quickly. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake still doesn’t know what to make of the decision, and he wants the American public to know he’s wrestling with the news.
“I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing,” he tweeted on Tuesday night after the news broke. “I just can't do it.”
In the days since the firing, the Arizona Republican has done plenty to make it clear to the public that he is conflicted. On Wednesday, he still didn’t know what to think. “I just don’t know why this happened now. I’m having trouble with it still,” he told reporters. On NPR Thursday morning, he reiterated his confusion: “There have been some explanations given, not always consistent,” he said.
It’s clear he’s concerned about Comey’s firing. It’s just that he isn’t doing anything about it; Flake won’t publicly call for a special prosecutor or independent committee to investigate. Instead, he’s sticking to just agonizing over the news.
Flake's crisis is representative of the really difficult politics vulnerable Senate Republicans face over Comey. Flake is one of the two Republican senators looking at a difficult midterm election in 2018. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada is the other.
Flake and Heller have had to do their best to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. But Trump’s abrupt decision to fire Comey, paired with his low approval ratings and his constantly changing story about why he cut the FBI director loose, is leaving Republican senators hanging out to dry.
Trump is in this for himself, no matter what problems it creates
When news of Comey’s dismissal broke, Heller was like many Republicans — he stayed quiet for hours before releasing a statement that gave little insight into where he stood on the issue:
“Director Comey’s dismissal comes as a surprise,” Heller said in a statement. “Our country is facing extraordinary times coupled with extraordinary events, and there is nothing more important than getting to the bottom of Russia’s attempt to interfere with our elections. I’m committed to protecting our democratic process from outside influence.”
Other Republicans embraced the line that Comey’s firing was about the handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation — but as leaks and an interview from Trump himself revealed, that story is looking more and more like a false pretense for Trump, who was furious about the investigation into his campaign’s connections to Russia.
Flake’s strongest remarks on the Comey firing came on Thursday morning, when he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that if Trump nominates a partisan to replace Comey in the FBI, “you bet” he will line up with Democrats to block the appointment. But at the same time, Flake isn’t sure this probe needs an independent investigation — he wouldn’t want to “jeopardize the bipartisan, I believe, effective investigation that is occurring now.”
Both Heller and Flake came out against Trump in the election. Ever since, they have been walking this fine line. Flake has pushed against an independent investigation into the Russia ties, while Heller has remained silent.
Republicans only have eight Senate seats to defend in the 2018 election, compared with the 25 Democrats have up for reelection, and only two of them — Flake and Heller — are seats that Democrats have a real shot at picking off. Arizona, though a state with a heavy conservative tradition, is also a state with a large Hispanic population that Democrats hope to fire up as part of the resistance.
Heller is the only Republican running for reelection in a state that Trump lost in the election. “He is the No. 1 Republican senator being targeted for 2018,” Stewart Boss, the spokesperson for the Nevada Democratic Party, said. “We have dinged Heller on [Russia] as far back as March.”
The Democratic Super PAC American Bridge has already started using Trump’s possible ties to Russia to put pressure on Flake and Heller, claiming the senators are “turning a blind eye” to the Russia story. Flake, too, is being pulled by both sides. Early polling shows that he is just as much disliked as he is liked among primary voters in Arizona, and he already has a more Trump-like primary challenger.
It would be hard for Republicans to lose control of the Senate, but Trump’s presidency isn’t helping
Democrats have certain factors in their favor looking toward the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans only hold small majorities in both the House and the Senate. The Democratic base looks like it’s energized, which means it will be easier to fundraise, recruit good candidates, and get people out to vote. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained, the party of presidents with bad approval ratings usually does badly in the midterms, and President Trump’s rating is dismal:
Trump’s approval — currently about 43 percent on average — is well within the range of presidents who have lost 20 to 50 House seats. So if it stays around there, we should expect a rough result for him in the midterms.
Still, Democrats would need an “extraordinary amount of good political fortune to retake the Senate,” Prokop writes. “Considering how dismal the map is, the party would likely be thrilled to even maintain their current number of 48 seats. (Democrats will have a better shot at the Senate in 2020, when mostly Republican seats will be on the ballot.)”
Even so, Trump is making life very difficult for Republicans. The White House’s bungled announcement of Comey’s dismissal has escalated tensions over the investigations into Russia, and Republican reactions are already becoming fodder for Democratic attacks.
Congressional Republicans are also in the middle of a health care policy debate that is so unpopular Democrats are saying it will cost them seats. Then they will have to tackle Trump’s tax plan, which is also proving to be unpopular. Ironically, Comey’s dismissal has stalled most policy action in the Senate.
To be sure, we are still 18 months away from the midterm elections, but right now things are looking grim for Republicans.