White House Turmoil Puts the GOP Agenda at Risk

Allegation that Trump asked former FBI director to drop probe prompts GOP calls for investigation

 “We have no jobs bill, we have no infrastructure bill, no tax bill,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said. “We have no plan for Syria. We have no plan for North Korea… I don’t think I’ve ever seen an administration that was so lacking in substantive proposals this late in the beginning of their term.”

A series of recent revelations involving the president has threatened to swamp his legislative agenda.

A series of recent revelations involving the president has threatened to swamp his legislative agenda. PHOTO: ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES
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WASHINGTON—The latest revelation to buffet the White House—that President Donald Trump allegedly asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop a probe of his former national security adviser—has prompted some congressional Republicans to call for further investigation.

Mr. Comey documented the encounter in a memo written shortly after the February meeting, according to two people close to Mr. Comey. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) said he was considering subpoenaing the memo, if it wasn’t made available. Mr. Chaffetz on Tuesday night requested the FBI provide by May 24 all memos, notes, summaries and recordings of communication between Mr. Trump and Mr. Comey in a letter to FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe.

The move was supported by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).

“We need to have all the facts, and it is appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request this memo,” AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ryan, said in a statement Tuesday night.

Mr. Chaffetz insisted the House could get its business done despite the upheaval.

“The government is always full of crisis—some of this is very self-inflicted by the White House itself—but we still have to be able to pass meaningful legislation and get it to the president’s desk,” Mr. Chaffetz told NBC Tuesday night.

Other congressional Republicans called on Mr. Comey to deliver a full explanation.

“I’m concerned about it,” Rep. Leonard Lance (R., N.J.) said of the latest controversy. “I hope that Director Comey testifies before Congress as soon as possible.” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), a member of House GOP leadership said on Twitter that “of course” Mr. Comey should testify.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), speaking at a dinner held in his honor by the International Republican Institute, said Mr. Trump’s troubles have reached “Watergate size and scale.”

Republicans said they weren’t yet sure of the details of the latest allegation, but that they would be deeply concerned if Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey to drop the FBI investigation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Reporters asked GOP Sen. Jeff Flake questions as he rode the Senate subway on Tuesday.

Reporters asked GOP Sen. Jeff Flake questions as he rode the Senate subway on Tuesday. PHOTO: BILL CLARK/NEWSCOM/CQ/ZUMA PRESS

“That would be a very serious charge,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R., S.D.)

“There is a pattern of casualness with regard to what and how the president says things and that this casualness is dangerous in our form of government,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R., S.C.) said on his Facebook page.

In the memo, Mr. Comey wrote that the president told him that he hoped he could find a way to drop the FBI’s probe of Mr. Flynn. Mr. Comey wrote detailed memos about encounters with the president that concerned him, an associate said.

In a statement issued Tuesday evening, the White House denied the account.

The series of controversies involving the president has threatened to swamp his legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, with potential hearings and widening investigations siphoning time and energy from plans to overhaul the health-care system and tax code.

“I am worried, concerned, that continual political drama will drain the energy away from real accomplishments,” said Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

“They’re sidetracked every single day,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.), a member of House Democratic leadership, said of Republicans. “Even as Democrats, it’s very hard to get a toehold on anything when you’ve got this constant drama every single day.”

Although Senate Republicans continued to meet Tuesday afternoon to hash out details of their health-care bill, major legislative lifts will be complicated by any new congressional probes launched in the wake of the week’s disclosures.

‘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,’ Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Tuesday.

‘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,’ Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Tuesday. PHOTO:ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

“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,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Tuesday.

It will be up to GOP committee chairmen to decide what kinds of investigations to pursue, but a public outcry could apply increased pressure to dedicate staff and time looking into Mr. Comey’s firing, suspected Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether Mr. Trump’s campaign had any ties to Russia and any subsequent revelations that could unfold in coming days. Both Russia and the Trump administration have denied any wrongdoing during the election.

Democratic leaders made clear they would keep the spotlight trained on getting to the bottom of Mr. Trump’s conduct. Democrats and a couple of House Republicans have called for a special prosecutor to look into Russian interference in the election.

“With each passing day, the President’s actions give greater and greater urgency to the need for a full and independent investigation of the Trump-Russia connection,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday night.

The latest controversies erupted at a time when both chambers of Congress were in a quiet period of low-profile legislating. The Senate is slogging through confirmation of lower-level presidential nominees, while Republicans are working behind the scenes to craft big-ticket bills on health care and a rewrite of the tax code.

Republicans said it has been hard to concentrate on crafting even legislation they plan to pass with only GOP votes amid the continuing White House turmoil.

“When you’re not sure what’s going to happen from the morning to the evening, it definitely takes your eye off the ball,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.) “We’re trying to stay focused on what we need to do, which is health care.”

But as the major fights over health-care and taxes heat up later this year, Mr. Trump may find his own political capital diminished when he seeks to get his own priorities included. He has released an outline of his own tax proposal and made clear that any health-care legislation can’t violate his populist pledges to provide cheaper and better coverage than the ACA.

“Whenever there’s drama going on over there, it’s tougher for the agenda here,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) said of the White House’s recent actions. “But I suppose it’s going to continue, so we’ll have to get used to it.”

The president’s approval rating has remained steadily below 40%, which could make centrist Republicans and red-state Democrats less willing to align with him. Some 39% of poll respondents said they approved of Mr. Trump’s overall job performance in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, while 54% disapproved, almost identical to the results of the survey in April.

“If the president is struggling to expand beyond his base, it makes legislating harder,” said Stewart Verdery, the founder of lobbying and public-affairs firm Monument Policy Group and a former Senate Republican aide. “The energy level on the left is so hot, it just means that nobody wants to compromise on anything.”

Democrats have relatively little leverage on Capitol Hill, where they are in the minority in both chambers. The next major piece of must-pass legislation is the spending bill that will need to clear Congress before Oct. 1, when the government’s current funding expires and a two-year budget deal ends. Spending bills require 60 votes in the Senate, where Republicans hold 52 seats, so Democrats will have some sway there. Democratic votes also will be needed to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as for legislation dealing with the Food and Drug Administration user fees.

Republicans are planning to send Mr. Trump their health-care and tax bills through a process tied to the budget that enables them to pass with a simple majority in both chambers, relegating Democrats to the sidelines. But if the president hopes to clear an infrastructure package or other bipartisan bills, Democrats said his prospects of winning them over are slipping.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said the White House hadn’t produced anything on which Democrats could work with them.

“We have no jobs bill, we have no infrastructure bill, no tax bill,” Mr. Hoyer said. “We have no plan for Syria. We have no plan for North Korea… I don’t think I’ve ever seen an administration that was so lacking in substantive proposals this late in the beginning of their term.”

Because legislating gets harder during a campaign year, GOP leaders have said they hope to pass both health-care and tax legislation by year’s end, before the 2018 campaign cycle heats up. Both chambers will be out of session for the week following Memorial Day, then will return for four weeks before the July 4 recess. Although GOP leaders haven’t set official deadlines, some Senate Republicans hope to pass a health-care bill before the month-long August break, knowing it will take more time to negotiate a compromise that can pass the House.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com

Appeared in the May. 17, 2017, print edition as ‘Furor Puts the GOP Agenda at Risk.’

https://www.wsj.com/articles/white-house-turmoil-puts-gop-legislative-agenda-at-risk-1494975201

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