POLITICS
02/14/2017 05:45 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2017

Republicans Realize Questions About Trump's Russia Ties Are 'Not Going Away'

Senators say the Flynn scandal should be investigated. The House was a bit more dismissive.

WASHINGTON ― Less than 24 hours after national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned, Republicans on Capitol Hill were scrambling to find a response that would project independence, but also support for the Trump administration.

Republicans have made their stance on Russia clear. Congressional committees are currently investigating the foreign government’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and those investigations will determine if further inquiry into President Donald Trump’s Russia ties is needed. But with new revelations that Flynn talked to Russia’s U.S. ambassador about sanctions against the Kremlin ― and then lied about it ― Republicans face mounting pressure to get answers from the White House about what it knew and when.

Do they call Flynn to testify before Congress? Should there be an independent commission to investigate Flynn and possibly deeper White House ties to Russia? Leaders in the House don’t seem to think a new probe is necessary now that Flynn has resigned. Their counterparts in the Senate are on a different page entirely.

The rift was apparent as House leaders sounded off first, saying no additional scrutiny of Flynn is needed. But Republicans in the upper chamber have begun to acknowledge that what’s transpired over the past 24 hours changes things, and that questions about Trump’s relations with Russia now ― and during the campaign ― are not going to miraculously disappear.  

“This thing’s not going away,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Tuesday.

Corker said he doesn’t think an independent commission similar to the one undertaken after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is the best route to investigate Flynn’s actions.

“How long is that going to take? The 9/11 study took two and a half years,” Corker said, adding that he wants to talk to the top Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence and foreign relations committees. “I’m not stonewalling. I think this does accent the issue a little bit ― in the last 24 hours ― and I think there’s probably a desire for this to happen in a quickened pace.”

Standing beside fellow party leaders after caucus lunches, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he expects Flynn will ultimately testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.  

“It’s likely that Gen. Flynn will be at some point asked to come and talk to the committee about post-election activity and any other activity,” Blunt told reporters.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear he plans to leave the investigating to the intelligence panel, and didn’t want to even discuss the possibility that Trump directed Flynn to do what he did.

“The fundamental question for us is what is our involvement in it, and who ought to look at it,” McConnell said. “Any questions as to why the president did what he did ought to go to the White House.”

But Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the most outspoken Republicans on Trump’s relations with Russia, wants to ask those questions himself ― and he wants the White House to start talking.  

“What I’d like to know is, did Gen. Flynn make this phone call by himself?” Graham said. “If he was directed, by whom? I can only imagine what Republicans would say if the Obama administration reached out to Iran or Iraq or any other government to say, ‘Just be patient, we’re going to change some policies of the Bush administration.’ We would all be pretty upset about that.”

Whether Flynn should testify, Graham said, comes down to what “legal rights” the administration has to “withhold” him from appearing before Congress.

“But I do believe it’s important for Congress to know a couple things: Did they try to engage Russians before they were in office? Was this part of a continuing pattern between the Trump people and Russia? Was there any legitimacy to the idea that the Russians had something against Gen. Flynn?”

For now, Graham is fine with continuing the current investigations in traditional committees, but only if it gets results.  

“If I believe it won’t work, I’ll urge for a joint select committee,” he said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is already looking into Russian meddling into the U.S. election. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chairs the committee, wouldn’t directly say Tuesday if the latest wrinkle surrounding Flynn should be investigated.

“We plan to continue to do aggressive oversight in committee privately,” Burr told reporters. “We don’t do it publicly.”

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the intelligence committee, said there was “obviously” a lot of concern on his part about Flynn and the administration. 

“Those of us that are involved in intelligence matters will uncover the information that we need to make judgments going forward,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a review of all of this but what form it’s going to take, and when it happens, who’s involved, I think that remains to be seen.” 

So far, the majority of Senate Republicans The Huffington Post talked to want to keep an investigation into Flynn within the committees of jurisdiction ― not a special select committee or independent commission. At least one top ranking Democrat agrees with them on that point.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member on intelligence, said she doesn’t think there should be an independent investigation into Flynn.  

“We need, candidly, our intelligence committee to hold some hearings. Talk to FBI, talk to the attorney general office,” Feinstein said, “find out exactly what the situation was and, in fact, if laws were violated.

“I feel very strongly that this is either the job of the judiciary committee or the intelligence committee, those are the two that have jurisdiction,” she continued. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) dodged most questions from reporters, saying it’s too early to draw conclusions but that there are “serious questions” that need to be answered by the White House.  

Pressed on if Flynn should testify before Congress, McCain said, “On what?!”

“There should be an investigation,” he continued. “I’m not ready to go into the details. It’s been less than 24 hours since he quit, come on.”

On the House side, leaders are taking a more dismissive stance. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Oversight Committee, said he doesn’t plan to investigate Flynn because “it’s taking care of itself.”

Another chairman who could lead an investigation, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), is starting from the position that Flynn was “probably the best intelligence officer of his generation.”

Nunes insisted Monday that Flynn should not step down, and that there was “a lot of nothing there.”

On Tuesday, he showed little interest in conducting a real investigation. When a reporter asked if Nunes would bring Flynn before the committee, he said Flynn was “always invited to come testify before our committee.”

“But I have no idea if he’ll want to or not,” Nunes said, sounding unconcerned about Flynn’s discussion.

In fact, the issue with Flynn that most concerned Nunes was that the details of the phone call had leaked. “We don’t even know who listened to the phone calls of an American citizen,” he said.

Nunes has repeatedly dismissed calls that he and his committee are timidly looking into issues related to Trump and Russia, and he continues to insist that any investigation be kept private. That position became the easy default for House Republicans on Tuesday ― that the intelligence committee is looking into it and they don’t want to get ahead of that investigation.

“I’m not going to prejudge any of the circumstances surrounding this until we have all of the information,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Tuesday morning.

And plenty of Republicans were happy to leave it at that.

“I’m confident the committees here in Congress can conduct those investigations,” Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) told HuffPost.

“I’m going to look to Chairman Nunes primarily in this case because of the nature of the material,” former Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. 

Some Republicans said they didn’t see why any investigation was needed at all.

“Gen. Flynn has resigned. Case done,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said.

Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a staunch Trump ally in the House, said the whole controversy was a “media creation.”

“Every administration, you have bumps in the road because people don’t know exactly what their authority is,” Rohrabacher continued. “And in this case, a very loyal, hardworking patriot did not know exactly what the parameters of his authority were because he was brand new.”

“He probably was doing this with Trump’s understanding that he had some communication there to see if some upcoming agreements could be reached.”

Asked if Rohrabacher, who was once on the list of consideration for Trump’s secretary of state, thought Trump had directed Flynn to discuss sanctions specifically, Rohrabacher said Trump was probably seeking information in general. “But so what if he did?” Rohrabacher said. “That’s absolutely fine for him to talk about sanctions.”

While that position is not in the mainstream, and would seem to contradict the law regarding private citizens interfering with diplomatic relations, it is part of the House Republican conversation. Flynn did nothing wrong, some Republicans believe. Who cares if Trump told him to undermine the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia? (Something, that if proven true, would set off senators like Graham and McCain.)

Again, House Republicans just refer the matter to the intelligence panel. The committee is a black box. No one really knows what they’re looking into with regard to Russia, and even if they did, they couldn’t talk about it. By saying they support the intelligence committee looking into it, they can simultaneously sound tough and do nothing.

“We have to be careful because of commenting without the facts, but, at the same time, I don’t know how you get the facts without some investigation,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said Tuesday, seeming to support real oversight of this debacle.

And then just after demanding a “full accounting,” he deferred that oversight to the strongly pro-Trump, pro-Flynn chairman of the intelligence committee.

Even Republicans who are normally suspicious of Nunes were willing to give him wide berth. Michigan Rep. Justin Amash ― who Nunes once called “al Qaeda’s best friend in Congress” ― said he would support an investigation if it were warranted, but the first step would be to let the intelligence committees look into it.

Time and again Tuesday, Republicans repeated those talking points.

But what if it appeared Nunes wasn’t doing enough?

“We can express our concerns to leadership if there is some credible indication that there is something there and the intelligence committees won’t move on it,” Amash said.

And then months down the road, without intense attention paid to Flynn in the immediate aftermath of his resignation, leadership can calmly make a decision about what to do. If Ryan’s past actions are any indication, though, it’s much easier to just refer everyone to a committee that hardly ever talks about what it’s doing. But Flynn’s resignation appears different, at least to Senate Republicans, who may drag their House colleagues into an investigation whether they want to be involved or not.

This story has been updated to include comments from Chaffetz.

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