Republicans on Capitol Hill are still reeling from the waves of scandals that have hit Washington in quick succession over the last few days: President Donald Trump’s sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, the admission he did so to in order put the kibosh on the bureau’s investigation of his own campaign, reports that Trump pressured Comey in a private meeting to drop that investigation, and news that Trump revealed highly classified Israeli intelligence to the Russians.
Any one of those revelations on its own could drive a wedge between a President and his own party in Congress. In combination, they threaten to derail Trump’s presidency entirely.
While the latest Comey allegations have forced reluctant Republican leaders to initiate some oversight of Trump, and at least two GOP lawmakers have raised the possibility of impeachment, most members are standing by their man. Here are the some of the arguments GOP members made to reporters as to why Trump’s pressure on Comey to let Flynn off the hook does not constitute an obstruction of justice.
Several Republican lawmakers claimed Wednesday morning that Trump may have been speaking in jest when he spoke to Comey about the Flynn investigation and said: “I hope you can let this go.”
“Having spent time on Air Force One with the president, I can say that he jokes a lot,” Rep. James Comer (R-KY), a member of the House Oversight Committee, told reports. “Sometimes when you say a joke, everybody gets a joke. But when you write it on paper, it sounds very different.”
Comer gave the example of Trump’s threat in a House Republican meeting on the then-imperiled health care bill to help unseat Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who was against the bill at the time. Though it was reported as a threat, Comer insisted that in the room, “everybody was laughing.”
“The important thing to remember [about Trump] is that he’s not a polished politician who speaks in talking points,” he said. “He’s a normal person, and that’s why he won the election. People voted for him because they were sick and tired of politicians and political speak. This is a guy who doesn’t measure everything he says.”
Some lawmakers took a darker view of the news, alleging that it was part of some grand conspiracy against the Trump administration.
“It’s a distracting. It’s right in line with the Indivisible playbook of keeping Congress and the White House diverted into other issues so that we can’t get to the things we promised to do,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said. Gohmert clarified that he is not claiming the grassroots progressive group is behind the Comey memo revelation, but said it reminds him of their “tactics.”
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) similarly would not name who exactly he believes is working against Trump, saying only: “It’s pretty clear there are a lot of people who want to see the president distracted. They want to see him not focused on his job.”
Aderholt says he sees no need for Comey to testify on Capitol Hill nor a reason to appoint a special prosecutor.
This particular narrative has made its way from the fringes of the GOP to its leadership. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told reporters Wednesday morning: “There are some people out there who want to harm the President.”
Amid claims that “some people” are out to get the president, Ryan and several lawmakers in his caucus have cast suspicion particularly on Comey, who reportedly has a trove of memos about each of his interactions with Trump that may be released in the weeks ahead.
“I’m sure we’re going to want to hear from Mr. Comey about why, if this happened as he allegedly describes, why didn’t he take action at the time,” Ryan said Wednesday.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA) echoed the idea that Comey should have resigned as soon as he witnessed anything unethical, questioning why he waited until he was fired to begin releasing damaging information.
“The timing is interesting to me that Comey was released from his position days before this comes out,” Loudermilk said. “Is this sour grapes or is there something to it?”
Loudermilk also voiced what may be the most common defense from Republicans as Trump’s scandals deepen: brushing it off entirely.
“It’s being made a bigger deal than what it is,” he said. “If it’s not this, something else will come up, and if nothing else comes up, everybody will go back to ‘he needs to release his tax records.'”
While many lawmakers, former FBI agents, and former Justice Department officials say it was wildly inappropriate for Trump to talk to Comey at all about an investigation involving his administration—let alone leaning on him to abandon the inquiry—Loudermilk waved away those concerns.
“It doesn’t sound like a threat to me when you say, ‘I hope something happens,'” he said. “Any legal scholar out there would tell you that is clearly not obstruction of justice.”
Loudermilk also disputed reports that Trump’s scandals have consumed lawmakers’ attention, putting their former top priorities like repealing Obamacare and passing tax reform in jeopardy.
“I’m not distracted,” he said cheerfully. “We’re bringing Dodd-Frank repeal to the floor next week regardless of what’s going on over there. The legislative business is continuing. I don’t see it as a distraction.”
Aderholt agreed, noting that the issue barely came up in House Republicans’ Wednesday morning meeting, which he said focused mainly on fundraising and the upcoming special elections in Montana, Georgia, and South Carolina.
“I have not seen anything that alarming,” he said of the Trump-Comey mess.
As reports have emerged over the past few months documenting ever more troubling connections between the Trump administration and Russia, Republican lawmakers have repeatedly said that the “real story” is government sources passing that information to the media. Loudermilk and others stuck by that line Wednesday morning.
“We have some major leaks that are threatening our national security,” he said. “That’s what the story ought to be, not something the president may have said in some private meeting. The real issue we have is that we have leaks that in my opinion could be considered treason right now.”
This line from Republicans in particularly chilling in light of reports that Trump instructed Comey in that fateful February meeting to “consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.”
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.