Leading Republicans on Wednesday reacted to the legal drama involving Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer, with what seemed to be a collective shrug.
“Naturally it makes you very concerned,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters. “But the president shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of people that he’s trusted.”
Manafort was found guilty Tuesday on eight of the 18 counts brought against him by special counsel Robert Mueller: five tax fraud charges, one charge of hiding foreign bank accounts, and two counts of bank fraud. Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts, including violating campaign-finance laws by making hush-money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump. Cohen acknowledged that the payments were meant to influence the 2016 presidential election by keeping the allegations out of the news, and that they were made “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” referring to then-candidate Trump.
“He’s pled guilty,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said. “So what is there about him to worry about?”
Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said on Wednesday that his client has information that would be “of interest” to Mueller’s Russia probe.
“Mr. Cohen’s credibility is going to be challenged,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., mirroring the response from Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who in a statement said, “Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”
“It’s a mess,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday afternoon. “I honestly don’t know what to believe at this point. Mr. Cohen has been very inconsistent in his statements. The president hasn’t been terribly consistent in some of the things he has said.”
But Stewart also said he isn’t sure the hush money payments constitute a campaign finance violation.
Republican leadership on Capitol Hill was mostly silent. A spokesman for Paul Ryan said the House speaker was aware of Cohen’s plea to “these serious charges” but needed “more information than is currently available at this point.” Representatives for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to a request for comment.
Several Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said that Trump’s implication in the Cohen case should delay the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, set for September.
Others would not rule out the start of impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that “every single remedy, including indictment of the president, should be on the table.”
Most Senate Democrats, though, said that talk of impeachment was premature. No one on the GOP side, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would touch the subject.
“Campaign finance violations — I don’t know what will come from that, but the thing that will hurt the president the most is if, in fact, his campaign did coordinate with a foreign government like Russia,” Graham said.
That wasn’t the case in 1999, when Graham, then a member of the U.S. House that impeached President Bill Clinton, said it didn’t take a conviction or even a crime to impeach the president.
“You don’t have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional Republic,” Graham said at the time, “if this body determines your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds.”
He added: “Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
Perhaps the closest thing to a fresh rebuke of Trump among leading Republicans came from Mitt Romney, the former GOP presidential nominee and current candidate for the U.S. Senate in Utah. Romney dismissed Trump’s assertion that the legal blows were part of a “witch hunt” by the Justice Department.
“The events of the last 24 hours confirm that conduct by highly-placed individuals was both dishonorable and illegal,” Romney tweeted on Wednesday. “Also confirmed is my faith in our justice system and my conviction that we are a nation committed to the rule of law.
On Tuesday, moments after the news about Manafort and Cohen broke, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, “People who do bad things, who break the law, need to be held accountable.” But according to the Associated Press, Cornyn “quickly made clear his statement wasn’t aimed at Trump.”
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