NEW ALBANY, Ohio — Paul Ryan desperately does not want the dark cloud hanging over the White House to distract congressional Republicans from advancing their ambitious policy agenda. Wednesday showed that he may no longer have a choice.
President Donald Trump called the Speaker of the House to give him a heads up that he was going to fire FBI director James Comey, yet Ryan still waited more than 24 hours after the news broke to make any public statement.
Repeating the pattern of last year's campaign, the president sucked up all the oxygen and put Ryan on the defensive. The 2012 GOP nominee for vice president rolled up in a long motorcade to a plant here in central Ohio as part of an effort to jumpstart his push for comprehensive tax reform.
But Ryan could not escape the Comey news, and some Republicans back in Washington freely acknowledged that the growing scandal will make passing big-ticket legislation, including tax reform, much harder.
The congressman from Wisconsin sniffed a canister of walleye bait that gets packaged at the facility. "I spray my lures," he explained to his tour guide. As cameramen pleaded with him to say anything on the Comey news, he replied: "I'm not doing questions right now."
At a roundtable with small-business owners later, he said: "I want to tell my friends in the press I'll be making some statements later about the questions that they all have. At another time. But, right now, we want to talk with the people here about the issues that they are facing."
The president firing an FBI director who was overseeing an investigation into his campaign's possible collusion with the Russians is apparently not one of those issues.
Finally, after dodging the reporters who flew here to see him, he went on Fox News last night and offered support for Trump's decision. "It is entirely within the president's role and authority to relieve him and that's what he did," Ryan said. "The president made a presidential decision."
The Ohio events offered a revealing window into the 47-year-old's thinking. He explained that there is currently "a once-in-a-generation opportunity" to simplify the tax code and cut rates for corporations. The last time the system got overhauled, he noted, was the year he got his first driver's license. This has been his dream since coming to Congress two decades ago, and unified Republican control of the government has created a window to get it done. Left unsaid was that the Russia/Comey story, if allowed to get legs, threatens to prematurely close that window and stop him from getting what he cares about most.
Mitch McConnell, Ryan's counterpart in the Senate, also chose to defend Trump, even as some of his members expressed concerns. The Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader each reiterated opposition to an independent investigation or special prosecutor. "I don't think that's a good idea," said Ryan, saying that the congressional intelligence committees should take the lead.
Both GOP leaders have been around town long enough to understand the risks of empowering an outside prosecutor who cannot be reined in by the president's appointees. They saw what Ken Starr did to Bill Clinton and Patrick Fitzgerald did to Scooter Libby — and how those investigations brought Washington to a standstill.
• "Only one GOP senator — John McCain — has definitively said he'd support an independent inquiry, a position he has held for months," per Amber Phillips, who is now keeping a whip count. "At least one more GOP senator, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), is open to the idea. But supporters of an independent investigation have a long way to go before they have a majority in either chamber."
• Stipulating that they can withstand pressure for a special prosecutor, there are already strong indications that the fallout from firing Comey will make it harder to put points on the board:
"This scandal is going to go on," McCain told a group of security experts after the Comey news broke.
"This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop. I can just guarantee it. There's just too much information that we don't have that will be coming out." (Josh Rogin got permission from the Arizona senator to let him public comments that were initially made off-the-record.)
"The only thing that is guaranteed right now is that the sense of chaos will continue, not only in law enforcement but also in Congress," GOP strategist Kevin Madden, a veteran of Capitol Hill and the Justice Department, tells Karen Tumulty. "Every single lawmaker in the House and Senate is going to be pressured to take a stance."
"Comprehensive tax reform just got an awful lot harder, as did nearly every other challenge facing the nation, both foreign and domestic: infrastructure, health care, immigration, trade and others," Michael Bloomberg argues in an op-ed for his eponymous news organization.
Several Republican lawmakers made the same point to Politico:
"I think it already has," Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) said. "Anytime you have a controversy like this, at least in the short-term, it will be a hindrance going forward with legislation — that's just the reality," Rep. Pete King (R., N.Y.) added. "Health care is tough enough," Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) noted.
• Comey's termination has prompted some Republican rank-and-file to show additional independence:
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), who is leaving Congress, asked the DOJ Inspector in a letter Wednesday night to investigate why Comey was fired.
The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena yesterday to force former national security adviser Michael Flynn to turn over documents related to the panel's probe
•."It is the first subpoena the committee has announced in the course of its Russia investigation — a step Chairman Richard Burr (R., N.C.) was long reluctant to take," Karoun Demirjian reports. "But the chairman began signaling this week that if Trump surrogates did not turn over requested materials to the committee by Tuesday — a deadline that some missed — he and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D., Va.) might begin issuing subpoenas. 'Everything has been voluntary up to this point, and we've interviewed a lot of people, and I want to continue to do it in a voluntary fashion,' Burr said. 'But if in fact the production of things that we need are not provided, then we have a host of tools.' "
Wednesday night, McCain and Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) came out against Trump's nominee for U.S. trade representative.
"Unfortunately, your confirmation process has failed to reassure us that you understand NAFTA's positive economic benefits to our respective states and the nation as a whole," they said, imperiling his hopes of making it through.
• Democrats are already slowing down the Senate to retaliate. Convincing eight of them to vote for legislation Trump wants becomes harder with each passing day. Even the senators from red states Trump carried overwhelmingly, like North Dakota, West Virginia and Montana, feel less pressure than they did a few weeks ago.
This was a major factor in the Senate unexpectedly voting down a resolution yesterday to repeal an Obama-era environmental regulation restricting methane emissions from drilling operations on public lands.
Democratic votes that GOP whips were counting on didn't materialize at the last minute. It is the first time since Trump's election that Republicans failed in their attempt to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn something Obama did. (Juliet Eilperin and Chelsea Harvey have more.)
To press for a special prosecutor, Senate Democrats plan to begin slowing down the process of confirming lower-level nominees.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) put a hold yesterday on Sigal Mandelker, a Trump nominee for the Treasury Department. Wyden said he would maintain the hold until the agency provides lawmakers with more documents related to Russia and its dealings with Trump. Republicans can override Wyden, but it will eat up valuable floor time. (Don't forget: Democrats will use the tax reform debate to score more points against Trump for refusing to release his tax returns.)
As another form of protest, Democrats forced the postponement of some committee hearings Wednesday.
This story is not going away
• Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe is testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee today in a public hearing.
• Trump plans to go to FBI headquarters tomorrow as a show of his commitment to the bureau, the New York Times reports.
• Comey has been invited to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee next Tuesday. It's unclear whether he'll accept.
• Whoever gets nominated to replace him at director is going to have a brutally tough confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
White House's story on Comey continues to unravel
• The public rationale for firing the FBI director is that he committed "atrocities" in overseeing the investigation of Hillary Clinton. Trump's spokesmen also insists that the push to fire Comey initiated from within the Justice Department, and Trump merely signed off. Neither of these claims is true, the Post revealed in a tick tock:
"The private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and on Capitol Hill, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans, paint a conflicting narrative centered on the president's brewing personal animus toward Comey.
"Every time Comey appeared in public, an ever-watchful Trump grew increasingly agitated that the topic was the one that he was most desperate to avoid: Russia. Comey, Trump figured, was using the Russia probe to become a martyr. He had long questioned the FBI director's judgment, and was infuriated by what he saw as a lack of action in recent weeks on leaks from within the federal government. By last weekend, he had made up his mind: Comey had to go.
"Back at work Monday morning in Washington, Trump told Vice President (Mike) Pence and several senior aides — Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon and Donald McGahn, among others — that he was ready to move on Comey. First, though, he wanted to talk with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his trusted confidant, and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, to whom Comey reported directly. Trump summoned the two of them to the White House for a meeting . . . The president already had decided to fire Comey . . . But in the meeting, several White House officials said Trump gave Sessions and Rosenstein a directive: to explain in writing the case against Comey. The pair quickly fulfilled the boss's orders, and the next day Trump fired Comey. . .
"ROSENSTEIN THREATENED TO RESIGN after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation...
"Within the West Wing, there was little apparent dissent over the president's decision to fire Comey, according to the accounts of several White House officials. McGahn, the White House counsel, and Priebus, the chief of staff, walked Trump through how the dismissal would work . . . Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner -- both of whom work in the White House -- have frequently tried to blunt Trump's riskier impulses but did not intervene to try to persuade him against firing Comey."
Trump kept his press people out of the loop, but then he became "irate" at them for not managing the announcement better: "White House press secretary Sean Spicer and communications director Michael Dubke were brought into the Oval Office and informed of the Comey decision just an hour before the news was announced. Other staffers in the West Wing found out about the FBI director's firing when their cellphones buzzed with news alerts beginning around 5:40 p.m. . . . When asked Tuesday night for an update on the unfolding situation, one top White House aide simply texted a reporter two fireworks emoji. . . . As Trump, who had retired to the residence to eat dinner, sat in front of a television watching cable news coverage of Comey's firing, he noticed another flaw: Nobody was defending him. . . . Trump pinned much of the blame on Spicer and Dubke's communications operation, wondering how there could be so many press staffers yet such negative coverage on cable news."
• Adding to the furor: Shortly before he was axed, Comey sought more resources for his investigation from Rosenstein. Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner met on Monday with Comey, according to several individuals familiar with the meeting. Later, at a regular meeting of Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Warner informed them that Comey had briefed the two committee chiefs about his request for more resources. "Although several Democrats confirmed that Comey had informed lawmakers of the request he made last week . . . the Justice Department denied those reports," the Post reported. But no one believes their denials anymore.
Important nuggets from elsewhere
• The FBI's probe was occupying more and more of Comey's time in the weeks before he got fired. "Mr. Comey started receiving daily instead of weekly updates on the investigation, beginning at least three weeks ago," the Wall Street Journal's Shane Harris and Carol E. Lee reported. "Mr. Comey was concerned by information showing possible evidence of collusion..."
• Trump's anger reached a boiling point when Comey refused to preview for top Trump aides his planned testimony before a Senate panel last week. From Reuters' Steve Holland and Jeff Mason: "Trump, Sessions and Rosenstein had wanted a heads-up from Comey about what he would say at a May 3 hearing about his handling of an investigation into [Clinton's] use of a private email server. When Comey refused, Trump and his aides considered that an act of insubordination . . . A former Trump adviser said Trump was also angry because Comey had never offered a public exoneration of Trump in the FBI probe into contacts between the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Sergei Kislyak, and Trump campaign advisers last year." One adviser said Comey's Senate testimony on Clinton reinforced in Trump's mind that "Comey was against him." "He regretted what he did to Hillary but not what he did to Trump," A former adviser added.
• Another turning point: Relations between Trump and Comey began to deteriorate significantly after Trump accused Obama of wiretapping him. From the New York Times' Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, Michael S. Schmidt and Peter Baker: "[Comey] was flabbergasted.The president, he told associates, was 'outside the realm of normal,' even 'crazy.' For his part, Mr. Trump fumed when Mr. Comey publicly dismissed the sensational wiretapping claim. In the weeks that followed, he grew angrier and began talking about firing Mr. Comey. After stewing last weekend while watching Sunday talk shows at his New Jersey golf resort, Mr. Trump decided it was time. There was 'something wrong with' Mr. Comey, he told aides. . . . To a president obsessed with loyalty, Mr. Comey was a rogue operator who could not be trusted . . . To a lawman obsessed with independence, Mr. Trump was the ultimate loose cannon, making irresponsible claims on Twitter and jeopardizing the bureau's credibility. (But) Mr. Comey's fate was sealed by his latest testimony . . . Mr. Trump burned as he watched, convinced that Mr. Comey was grandstanding. He was particularly irked when Mr. Comey said he was 'mildly nauseous' to think that his handling of the email case had influenced the election, which Mr. Trump took to demean his own role in history."
• A source close to Comey told CNN's Jake Tapper that he got fired for two reasons: He declined to provide Trump with any assurances of personal loyalty, and the FBI's investigation into possible Trump team collusion with Russia in the 2016 election was accelerating quickly.
• White House lawyers have had to "repeatedly" warn the president against reaching out to Flynn as he is being investigated, cautioning him that direct contact with his former national security adviser could be seen as "witness tampering," the Daily Beast reports: "Trump, angered by press coverage of the Russia investigation and Gen. Flynn, has asked senior staff and the White House counsel's office multiple times if it was appropriate to reach out . . . A White House staffer also stressed Trump's personal affinity for his former aide. The president 'clearly feels bad about how things went down,' the staffer said."
Inside the FBI
• Many employees were furious Wednesday about the firing (some others were fearful). There was agreement that the circumstances of his dismissal did more damage to the bureau's independence than anything Comey did in his three-plus years in the job. From The Post's DOJ beat reporters: "One intelligence official who works on Russian espionage matters said they were more determined than ever to pursue such cases. Another said Comey's firing and the subsequent comments from the White House are 'attacks' that won't soon be forgotten. Trump had 'essentially declared war on a lot of people at the FBI,' one official said. 'I think there will be a concerted effort to respond over time in kind.'"
• Comey sent a letter to all FBI staff last night: "I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all. I'm not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won't either. It is done, and I will be fine, although I will miss you and the mission deeply. ... In times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence." Since returning from Los Angeles, Comey has been keeping a low profile. He was observed Wednesday puttering around in the yard of his northern Virginia home.
• Justice Department leaders have already begun interviewing candidates to be Comey's interim replacement. Matt Zapotosky reported: "For now, Andrew McCabe, who had been [Comey's] top deputy, is running the bureau, and Justice Department officials said it remains possible that he will stay in that post until a permanent replacement is selected. McCabe met with Justice Department officials Tuesday night and is scheduled to testify Thursday at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing." But Jeff Sessions and deputy Rod Rosenstein were also slated to meet with four other candidates on Wednesday: "They were Michael Anderson, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago division; Adam Lee, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Richmond division; Paul Abbate, the executive assistant director of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch; and William 'Bill' Evanina, the national counterintelligence executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence ... The four men are currently being considered to serve only as interim director, officials said, although it was possible they would be under consideration to fill the post permanently, pending Senate confirmation."
Three big questions still to be answered
1. "Why was Sessions involved in discussions about the fate of the man leading the FBI's Russia investigation, after having recused himself from the probe because he had falsely denied under oath his own past communications with the Russian ambassador?" (Politico's Eliana Johnson reported that Trump has brought Sessions back into his inner circle recently after being angry at him for weeks when he recused himself.)
2. "Why had Trump discussed the Russia probe with the FBI director three times, as he claimed in his letter dismissing Comey, which could have been a violation of Justice Department policies that ongoing investigations generally are not to be discussed with White House officials?"
3. "How much was the timing of Trump's decision shaped by events spiraling out of his control - such as Monday's testimony about Russian interference by former acting attorney general Sally Yates, or the fact that Comey last week requested more resources from the Justice Department to expand the FBI's Russia probe?"
There's a bear in the ... Oval Office
• Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak huddled privately with Trump at the White House for a meeting that Trump later described as "very, very good." Many are alarmed that U.S. news organizations were barred from attending the closed White House event, but a photographer from a Russian state-owned news agency, Tass, was permitted. "Lavrov fended off questions about Russian interference in the presidential election. And during a visit with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov professed mock surprise when asked whether Comey's firing had cast a shadow over his visit. 'Was he fired?' Lavrov said, arching his eyebrows. 'You're kidding! You're kidding!'"
• Former U.S. intelligence officials said the level of access granted to the Russian photographer could pose a potential security breach. The Post reported: "The officials cited the danger that a listening device or other surveillance equipment could have been brought into the Oval Office while hidden in cameras or other electronics. Former U.S. intelligence officials raised questions after photos of Trump's meeting with [Lavrov] were posted online by the Tass news agency. Among those commenting on the issue was former deputy CIA director David S. Cohen. Responding to a question posed online about whether it was a sound decision to allow the photographer into the Oval Office, Cohen replied on Twitter: 'No it was not.' The White House played down the danger, saying that the photographer and his equipment were subjected to a security screening before he and it entered the White House grounds." But other former intelligence officials said allowing such access was undeniably a potential security lapse, noting that standard screening for White House visitors would not detect a sophisticated espionage device."