Sen. Roy Blunt, re-elected last year with a crucial boost from Donald Trump, now finds himself with a politically awkward assignment: A very public role in the investigation of possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign.
The Missouri Republican, who so far has voted with the president 100 percent of the time, is one of eight Republicans on the intensely watched Senate Intelligence Committee.
Last week the panel questioned former FBI Director James Comey as an estimated 19.5 million watched live.
Blunt proceeded with characteristic caution, not demonstrating blind loyalty to Trump but careful not to suggest he was anywhere close to abandoning the White House.
He pressed Comey on why he didn’t resign if he felt Trump acted improperly and why he leaked details of his conversations with the president to the press.
Tuesday the star witness was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, adding to the potential discomfort for Blunt. Until earlier this year, Sessions was his colleague, a Republican senator from Alabama.
Blunt immediately eased the tension by affirming his personal connection to Sessions. He told the attorney general it was good to see him, and his wife, Mary, who was seated behind Sessions.
“I know there are places you’d rather be today,” Blunt said. “Good to see you here together and know that your family continues to be proud and supportive of what you do.”
“Thank you, I am blessed indeed,” Sessions replied.
“I agree with that,” Blunt said. Then he asked Sessions about how many other people were at a reception with the Russian ambassador on April 27, whether Sessions recalled meeting with other ambassadors there (he said yes) and what Sessions had said to Comey after the former FBI director’s solo meeting with Trump in the Oval Office.
None of Sessions’ answers to Blunt’s questions were likely to make headlines on a day when his fiery exchanges with Democrats such as New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich and California Sen. Kamala Harris stole most of the attention.
That’s probably just fine with Blunt.
The glare of the national spotlight is not Blunt’s comfort zone. Known as one of Congress’ master dealmakers, Blunt tends to work behind the scenes negotiating bills and budgets. He serves on powerful committees that determine funding levels for federal agencies and set policies that affect aviation, consumers and telecoms.
He’s also a member of the Republican leadership team in the Senate. When he served in the House, Blunt was a leadership whip, counting GOP votes and keeping members in line with the party’s agenda.
“He’s not somebody who aggressively seeks the limelight and he’s also somebody who understands that his position is never as secure as some people might think,” said Peverill Squire, political science professor at the University of Missouri. “He’s a Republican in a Republican state, but he’s never really won by comfortable margins.”
Blunt’s two-decade career in Washington became a political liability last year, as populist fervor fueled voters’ rejection of the status quo. Lawmakers seen as part of political establishment, whether Democrat or Republican, took a hit. Blunt, who was running against Democrat Jason Kander, a 35-year-old Afghan War veteran, came closer than he ever had to losing his seat in Congress.
Happily for Blunt, the GOP base in his home state of Missouri turned out massively for Trump. The billionaire businessman crushed his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in Missouri by nearly 19 points.
As a Republican sharing the ballot with Trump, Blunt got a boost. He squeaked out a narrow 3-point win on Trump’s coattails.
Now there’s a risk that if the intelligence committee’s Russia investigation heats up, those same Trump supporters could turn on Blunt.
“Once (committee members) start taking action – and that action may even be subpoenaing records – when they’re doing stuff like that and it looks like they’re going after the president personally, then it starts getting a little messier,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes U.S. Senate and governors races.
“It is uncomfortable,” Duffy said. “But I think Blunt’s frame of mind may be, ‘We’ll go where the evidence takes us, and if it takes us to a place where Trump looks bad, so be it.”
A key consideration for Blunt will be how best to serve the GOP agenda in Congress — and preserve the Republican majority. Although Blunt takes pride in his ability to work across the aisle, he has been a staunch party stalwart throughout his congressional career.
If Blunt and other GOP leaders start to think their control of Congress is at risk, Squire said, their willingness to defend the president could wane.
For now though, 81 percent of Republican voters nationwide support Trump, according to a Fox News poll last month. And Blunt seems to have little interest in doing anything that might antagonize Republicans in Missouri.
He largely has avoided criticizing Trump, and voiced full-throated support for the president’s exit from the Paris climate agreement, his bombing of Syria and his plan to replace Obamacare.
When asked by reporters recently what it would take for congressional Republicans to pull their support from Trump, Blunt said, “It’s a hypothetical question that I think shouldn’t be asked and shouldn’t be answered.”
Blunt doesn’t face reelection again until 2022, and he will never again share a ballot with Trump.
With a full term ahead of him, the senator can afford to stick his finger into the political winds as he waits to see how events play out, said Terry Smith, a political science professor at Columbia College in Missouri.
Given Blunt’s steadfast loyalty to the Republican party and his reserved nature, that relative independence makes him someone to watch closely as controversies swirl around Trump, Smith said.
“He might be kind of a weathervane,” he said. “If politicians like Roy Blunt start to abandon ship, then the problems are very serious.”