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Why congressional Republicans keep excusing Trump’s scandals

Mitch McConnell, framed in blurry darkness, walks, looking displeased, wearing a black jacket, blue shirt and red tie.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell 
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Republican lawmakers are stuck in the same Donald Trump cycle they’ve come to know too well.

They are in the middle of yet another White House scandal; President Trump reportedly revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister last week, and his administration can’t get the story straight on whether or not it even happened.

In past scandals, the cycle then unfolds this way: Republican allies rally to the president’s side to varying degrees — some saying the incident is nothing, others saying they’re “concerned.” Some call for more information, to avoid settling on a response.

"Certainly it’s less than ideal, but it is what it is," Sen. Marco Rubio told reporters Tuesday on whether these distractions from the White House would slow down legislating.

Eventually, Republican leadership and rank-and-file members pick one of the White House’s muddled official lines and take it to the grave — even if the president contradicts it and even if it doesn’t make sense. (Last week they claimed FBI Director James Comey’s firing was justified because of how Comey mishandled the Hillary Clinton email investigation last July.) Then the chaos settles. No one takes tangible action. The next scandal hits. Rinse, repeat.

Since announcing his candidacy for president, Trump’s scandal-ridden political career has set congressional Republicans churning through the same script. The hope among GOP leaders has always been that maybe one day the scandals will stop and Trump, a Republican president, will allow the Republican-controlled House and Senate to legislate: cut taxes, repeal Obamacare, deregulate.

Until then, as Rubio put it, “it is what it is.”

Trump was supposed to just sign Republican bills, but he keeps getting in the way

House Speaker Paul Ryan was never an ardent supporter of Trump during the election. Instead, he tolerated his blunders for the hope of a unified Republican government.

"Take a look at what a unified Republican government can get you. And then vote Republican — Donald Trump, our Senate candidates, and our House candidates — so we can start turning things around," Ryan wrote for CNN in the days before the election. That was the “choice facing America,” he said. In other words, Trump would always be an unlikable president, who said uncomfortable, unpresidential things, but it would allow the Republican Party to get things done.

When this dynamic works, it makes for the perfect marriage of the executive and legislative branches for congressional Republicans. As long as Republican lawmakers can get their own ducks in a row, they can do whatever they want, knowing full well that as long as they deliver something, the president will sign and sell it.

Because Trump cares about wins he can sell to his base — not policy. With the American Health Care Act, the House’s Obamacare repeal bill, the White House had minimal demands; Trump needed only a few assurances, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) said.

That’s when the dynamic works. But Trump keeps getting in the way, sparking chaos outside the world of legislating.

“It would be nice to have a drama-free week,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said of the never-ending cycle of scandals. He said he doesn’t know if it will end.

There is a bit of irony here. In that op-ed Ryan penned in November, he wrote that a Clinton administration would be “one scandal after another, and you never know what’s coming next.”

That has proven to be the tale of the Trump administration instead. Every day, Congress is left with more questions than answers, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said Tuesday with a sentiment that is shared across party lines.

Ryan’s only comment on the reported intelligence leak was through a spokesperson, and it was a call for a “full explanation.”

To Republicans, this is White House “drama,” and it’s taking up time

The White House is a lot of “drama,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday morning — and he wishes there would be “a little bit less” of it.

“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulations, tax reform, and repeal and replacing Obamacare,” McConnell said on Bloomberg TV.

Republican lawmakers across the board have been adopting the sentiment. They’re split over whether or not they have concerns about the actual allegations — and it’s clear the situation is making the Republican conference uncomfortable. But there is consensus that this chaos is slowing down the Republican agenda.

“Whenever there is drama going on over there, it’s tougher for the agenda here,” Flake said, adding that he still needs more information on whether Trump actually revealed classified information. “But I suppose it’s going to continue, so we have to get used to it.”

Sen. John McCain, who came out with an aggressive statement against Trump’s actions, calling them “disturbing,” also lamented that the scandals are hindering Congress’s ability to legislate: “I have about 20 different items, ranging from a defense authorization bill to sequestration to tax reform — a large agenda,” he said.

If Trump is going to be in the White House, Republicans at least want to be able to pass what they want to pass.

"Can we have a crisis-free day? That's all I'm asking,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told reporters on her way to a working group on a possible Senate health care bill.

Because remember, just over a week ago the House passed a health care bill that still has a long way to go before it reaches Trump’s desk.

Note: Context around Sen. Marco Rubio’s quote describing the current scandal-plagued administration’s impact on Congress as “it is what it is” was amended to more generally reflect the “many different distractions” coming out of the White House, not just the report of Trump sharing classified intelligence.

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