Republicans thought President Donald Trump was hitting his stride after a strong, on-message speech to a joint session of Congress. But once again, his administration is finding itself tangled up in a Russian influence scandal that veteran GOP operatives now warn will not go away.
Prominent Republican members of Congress spent Thursday calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from federal investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, after reports he had had conversations with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Sessions ultimately did, following a scale of GOP pushback that reflects one of the most significant congressional breaks with the Trump administration yet. Longtime Republican skeptics of Trump’s foreign policy say it won’t be the last.
“There are so many breadcrumb trails leading from the Trump campaign to Russia and back that the story will remain a persistent problem for the Republican Party until a credible investigation completes its work and the pertinent details of the Russia-Trump campaign relationship are put before the public,” warned Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who has written extensively about national security.
Trump has already fired his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, over his failure to fully disclose the extent of his contacts with Russia. Many Republicans, including several senators, were critical of Flynn and said he would need to testify as part of congressional probes of Russia and the role Moscow may have played in meddling in the 2016 presidential election. But the Sessions revelations forced them to talk about Trump and Russia again.
“This story is not going to go away,” said Tom Nichols, a former Republican congressional staffer and a professor at the Naval War College, stressing he was speaking in his personal capacity. “A lot of these Republicans were thinking, maybe this story would end when Flynn stepped down. Those were unrealistic expectations.”
Instead, prominent Republicans – including Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine – issued statements calling on Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia probe, and Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Darrell Issa and Kevin McCarthy of California made similar remarks (though McCarthy, the House majority leader, later walked back those comments).
Trump found himself playing defense on Sessions’ behalf Thursday, telling reporters he had “total” confidence in his attorney general and he didn’t think Sessions needed to recuse himself. Sessions did so anyway, even as the attorney general said such a recusal did not mean there was any investigation underway.
“When you evaluate the rules, I feel I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in,” Sessions said.
Meanwhile, Democrats, who are dealing with plenty of divisions of their own, are putting forth a unified front on questions about Russia’s role in the 2016 contest, with a number of them calling on Sessions to resign.
“This is clearly going to be a constant distraction,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist based in Sacramento, California. “It is probably one of the cleanest issues for Democrats to attack on.”
Of course, he added, there is also the risk that Democrats overplay their hand.
“At some point, Democrats have to be careful not to harm themselves by overplaying, looking absurd and overly political,” Stutzman said of the issue of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. But, he added, “If Democrats are cautious on this and don’t overplay it, this issue goes on and on until there is a thorough investigation and conclusions are reached.”
Brendan Steinhauser, a conservative operative based in Texas who expressed serious reservations about Trump during the campaign, praised the Republicans who have voiced their concerns about Russian connections to the White House.
“I was worried about facts on the ground, the impact the Russia story would make on the administration, on our country, on the party,” he said. “I was very concerned. I am very concerned about it again because it’s about core values: national security, rule of law, democracy.”