While many prominent Republican politicians have either defended President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey or been careful in their criticism, Trump’s move seemed to perplex some of the party’s rank and file.
One GOP lobbyist told Business Insider that Comey’s abrupt ouster now brings the Russia controversy back to center stage for the far foreseeable future — killing any momentum the administration was building with the recent passage of the American Health Care Act in the House.
“It only causes Democrats to smell a conspiracy around everything Russian — while giving GOPers pause,” the lobbyist told Business Insider.
“Congress is about to get bogged down in this and McConnell is apoplectic” with the White House, the lobbyist added, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell, however, defended the firing during a speech from the Senate floor Wednesday, echoing Trump and other leading Republicans in noting previous statements made by Democratic leaders criticising Comey. But privately, many Republicans in and out of the White House were taken aback by the abrupt nature of the move.
The lobbyist said the firing of Comey, who was investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials to help influence the US election, creates a “common sense” moment for those in Washington.
“Is the law the king or is the king the law — or is the law the trump or is the Trump the law?” the lobbyist said, later adding, “was Comey connecting the dots? Or, is he gone because he was not a Trump loyalist and uncontrollable?”
The Trump administration’s message Tuesday centered on Comey’s handling of the investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state. The White House has cited recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions as the reason for Comey’s ouster. But in his letter to Comey, Trump said the FBI director had informed him “on three separate occasions” that he was “not under investigation.” Comey has not confirmed that claim publicly.
Meanwhile, a grand jury issued the first subpoenas in the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion earlier Tuesday. CNN reported the subpoenas were issued for business records of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn’s associates.
Reports also emerged Wednesday that Comey was ousted days after he had asked Rosenstein for additional resources for the FBI investigation into Russian interference in November’s election. A Justice Department spokesperson denied the reports but didn’t offer a further explanation.
One top Republican operative speaking to Business Insider was perplexed by the administration response to Comey’s firing. After telling reporters that no additional comments would be made on Comey after 6:30 p.m. ET, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and counselor Kellyanne Conway took to cable news networks and downplayed the investigation into Russian interference.
Sanders told Fox News that “it’s time to move on” from the investigation, adding, “When are they going to let that go?”
“It’s been going on for nearly a year,” she said. “Frankly, it’s kind of getting absurd. There’s nothing there. We’ve heard it time and time again. We heard it in the testimonies earlier this week. We’ve heard it for the last 11 months. There is no ‘there’ there. It’s time to move on, and, frankly, it’s time to focus on things the American people care about.”
Conway told CNN Tuesday night that the firing was “not a cover-up” and said Wednesday morning that the Russia inquiry has been “a seven-month distraction.”
Even Vice President Mike Pence joined in, telling reporters Wednesday that Trump “is not under investigation” and “there is no evidence of collusion between our campaign and any Russian officials.”
The operative was struck by the seemingly coordinated message on Russia the same night of the firing, chalking it up either to incompetency or that Trump really did fire Comey “to kill” the Russia investigation.
Sanders toned down the rhetoric from her early TV hit during Wednesday’s press briefing, saying the investigation into Russian interference will continue unabated, even without Comey in power.
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