Politics

White House Puts GOP in Awkward Position

Flynn fallout, security considerations keep dominating news

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to talk about Cabinet nominations on Tuesday. But most of the questions at his press availability were about the latest scandals coming from the White House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

BY JASON DICK AND NIELS LESNIEWSKI

President Donald Trump’s domination of the news, whether due to the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn or the spectacle of the president discussing national security at his Mar-a-Lago resort’s dining room, is putting Republican leaders in an awkward position.

“Look, I — I — you’ll have to ask those — the White House those kinds of questions,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday at his traditional media availability after the Republicans’ policy lunch. 

The leader, who began the news conference decrying Democrats for delaying votes on Cabinet nominees, had been asked whether he was confident Trump had not directed Flynn to discuss sanctions against Russia with the country’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.

Revelations that Flynn misled Pence and other White House officials about the Kislyak conversations led to Flynn’s departure less than month into Trump’s administration. The timing is at best awkward for Republicans eager to legislate.

[No Party Line for GOP on Flynn Fallout]

The GOP has an ambitious agenda. Dismantling the 2010 health care law and replacing it with a system that doesn’t tank an industry that represents roughly 18 percent of gross domestic product, coupled with overhauling the tax code, is just the start.

There’s also confirming the rest of Trump’s Cabinet, shepherding a Supreme Court nominee to fill the year-long vacancy on the high court, raising the debt limit, building a wall on the Mexican border and wrapping up the fiscal 2017 spending process before government funding expires at the end of April. Add to that a bunch of Congressional Review Act measures to disapprove of rules put into effect by former President Barack Obama, and it’s a full plate.

For Republican leaders, the Flynn fallout came at an especially inopportune time on Tuesday, when they hold their policy lunches and several press availabilities, and Pence comes to Capitol Hill to make the rounds.

The vice president started by meeting with the House GOP’s moderate Tuesday Group. Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said Pence told the group that health care is the administration’s first priority, followed by a tax overhaul.

The White House also wants to push an infrastructure package, get supplemental spending to the Pentagon and provide assistance to working women, a priority for first daughter Ivanka Trump.

Speaking of the first daughter, the Office of Government Ethics on Tuesday requested the White House investigate the president’s senior counselor, Kellyanne Conaway, for encouraging the public to buy Ivanka Trump’s apparel line. That followed a rare bipartisan request for an inquiry by leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

[Ethics Office Requests Investigation of Kellyanne Conaway]

Meanwhile, after meeting with the Tuesday group, Pence went to the Senate Republicans’ lunch, where Speaker Paul D. Ryan also made an appearance. But Republican senators indicated there was at most a cursory discussion of Flynn.

McConnell has put the investigatory responsibility within the purview of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a panel that because of its sensitive subject matter conducts most of its business behind closed doors.

Following the committee’s regular meeting Tuesday, Chairman Richard M. Burr and ranking member Mark Warner sounded largely on the same page.

“Mark and I set the committee on a path some time ago, and we explained the full scope of the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 elections. That also included any contacts that any campaign officials might have had with Russian government officials,” Burr said.

“We will cast a wide net to look to individuals who can provide us additional insight into what went on, but right now the committee’s not in a position to address many questions about the events of the last 24 hours, because we don’t have the documents that we need to make assessments on it,” Burr said.

Warner wants Flynn to testify, but Burr said the committee needs to validate reports before taking other action. He would not rule out testimony from Flynn, something several GOP senators indicated they wanted to see.

“We’re going to follow this where the intelligence and the facts lead, and I think our colleagues should have trust in that. And I think the way we’re going about this in an orderly fashion should give the public trust in this process as well,” Warner said.

For Democrats, the problem with the Intelligence Committee leading the investigation may be that the panel could eventually have a closed-door disagreement on what should be released.

There are already questions about the panel’s jurisdiction.

“Gen. Flynn’s resignation is not the end of the story. It is merely the beginning,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said at his own post-lunch news conference. Schumer called for an “independent and transparent investigation” of the situation. While he said the Intelligence committees would do a fine job, he said a separate entity with “executive authority” was necessary to look into whether crimes were committed.

Meanwhile, the gang of eight lawmakers who are briefed by the executive branch on the nation’s most sensitive secrets — the top Republican and Democratic leader in each chamber and the top Republican and Democrat on the Intelligence committees — had not been apprised of the Flynn situation as of Tuesday afternoon, a full half-day after Flynn resigned and weeks after the Trump White House was informed of concerns about Flynn.

“We have not yet been briefed on that subject,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, when asked if anyone in the gang of eight had been told of Flynn’s call to the Russian ambassador.

Schiff said the group gets periodic briefings when intelligence investigations involve people in the United States and Flynn’s conduct falls under that category.

The California Democrat said he expects the group to be briefed about the fact that White House officials knew for weeks that Flynn had misled them about Russia and a Justice Department briefing that suggested Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail.

All this unfolded as Ryan, at a House GOP leadership news conference, said he did not want to “prejudge circumstances surrounding” Flynn.

Asked if he had concerns about the president talking about a North Korean ballistic missile over dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Largo resort over the weekend, Ryan said: “It’s my understanding that no classified information was discussed and talking about foreign policy at the dinner table is perfectly appropriate.”

One of Ryan’s committee leaders, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, didn’t get that memo.

On Tuesday, Chaffetz sent a letter to the White House asking for information on the now-infamous dinner scene.

“Discussions with foreign leaders regarding international missile tests, and documents used to support those discussions, are presumptively sensitive. … While the president is always on duty, and cannot dictate the timing of when he needs to receive sensitive information about urgent matters, we hope the White House will cooperate in providing the committee with additional information,” Chaffetz wrote.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain said the Flynn debacle is evidence of a mismanaged administration.

“It’s a dysfunctional White House. We know nobody knows who’s in charge. Nobody knows who is setting policy,” the Arizona Republican said.

Rema Rahman and Joseph P. Williams contributed to this story.

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