Trump Country Largely Unfazed by Comey Hearing
As the political world consumed the testimony of James Comey Thursday like it would a major sporting event, Republicans outside Washington gave a collective shrug.
Donald Trump's firing of his FBI director in the middle of his probe of the president's associates, a slew of congressional investigations involving Russia, and Trump’s nearly daily self-inflicted distractions -- including rogue tweets lambasting the mayor of London and undermining his own legal defense of his travel ban -- have made life difficult for GOP lawmakers in the nation's capital while threatening to derail the administration's top policy priorities.
Republicans watching from afar differ from their inside-the-Beltway brethren. From a vantage point aided by geographical distance from Washington, many of these GOP professionals see a president stymied by a sustained Democratic-resistance attack (never mind that Republicans control both the House and Senate) and media narratives they perceive to be pre-ordained.
"A lot of our people view this as just a continual re-litigation of an election the Democrats lost," said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina GOP, who said 800 Republicans came to a party gathering last weekend to hear Kellyanne Conway and Lara Trump speak. "Nothing that James Comey says is going to impact whether they can put gas in their car, whether they can feed their family, whether they can take an additional day at the beach or the mountains this summer."
While the solidity of Trump's base isn't surprising, the partisan lens through which events like the Comey testimony are viewed gives clues to how congressional Republicans might behave when it comes to the president. GOP lawmakers often lament Trump's twitchy thumbs on Twitter and the ways in which he consistently distracts from the tasks at hand—this week was supposed to be dedicated to infrastructure policy, after all—but they haven't thrown their hands up yet.
A new ABC News/Washington Post survey, for example, shows a sharp party divide on issues like the fired FBI director. While 88 percent of Democrats and a majority of independents think Trump fired Comey to protect himself, 71 percent of Republicans believe his ouster was for the good of the country.
"Honestly, they don't seem to care too much about all this Russia mumbo jumbo," said Kyle Hupfer, the GOP chair in Indiana, a state Trump won by 19 points and where his vice president used to be governor. "[Comey] is the same person that every Democrat wanted terminated six months ago, and now he's the darling of the Democratic Party?"
While Republican senators on the Intelligence Committee that conducted Comey’s hearing praised the former FBI director's service and thoroughness, some pressed him in a way that took focus off the president and put it on Comey.
Among the questions from Republicans: Why didn't you tell the president it was inappropriate to meet alone, or flag concerns with Congress? How is it that in this leaky environment, the director's assurance that Trump was not the subject of an FBI investigation did not trickle out? You claim Trump said he "hoped" the FBI could let go of the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, but how do you know that was meant as a directive and not simply a suggestion?
House Speaker Paul Ryan argued that Trump is "new at this" and is not versed in protocol as it pertains to interactions with the FBI. "When the FBI director tells him on three different occasions he is not under investigation, yet the speculation swirls around the political system that he is, that’s frustrating,” Ryan said. “I think the American people now know why he was frustrated.”
In an effort to show progress on agenda items despite the cloud of the Russia investigations, House Republicans touted the passage Thursday of a bill aimed at tearing down parts of the financial reform bill.
Yet because of the president's actions, the spotlight was on the other side of the Capitol. In his testimony, Comey said he would leave it to special counsel Robert Mueller to decide whether the firing amounted to obstruction of justice. Comey said he believed Trump tried to derail the Flynn probe, and that the president was "looking for something" in return for letting Comey keep his job.
But Republicans focused on Comey’s acknowledgement that the president was not at the time the subject of an investigation.
While Comey appeared in front of the intelligence panel, Trump gave an address to the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. "We're under siege. You understand that," Trump told the friendly audience.
The president also took aim at Democrats over the stalled health care repeal bill, even though Republicans have not solicited help from the opposition. "They are obstructionists," Trump said. "They are bad right now for the country. They have gone so far left that I don't know if they can ever come back."
Trump supporters speak of lack of legislative progress in similar terms. "They wanted Donald Trump to make change and are growing weary [of] the Democrats and media obstruction," said Hupfer, the Indiana GOP chair. "They expect folks to be a lot more cooperative than they're being."
Locally, this belief serves as something of an organizing and mobilizing tool for the party, even if members have little too sell by the way of legislation in next year's midterms. "The understanding that the left is at war with the president and will use any means necessary to defeat him" is energizing the base, said Pennsylvania GOP chair Val DiGiorgio. "I have asked the administration to send surrogates here and to talk about the president's agenda and get them informed and energized."
GOP operatives point to the president’s executive orders unraveling Obama-era regulations, the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and consumer confidence as signs of progress.
"Outside the Beltway, Republicans accept the chaotic nature of Trump. They know he rules with an iron fist, punches back and know there is some political fallout from that," said GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez. "The distrust of powerful institutions is palpable, so he gets more benefit of the doubt."
"There is still a tremendous amount of base support and a hopefulness about a reform-oriented agenda," Sanchez added. "But the political reality is less encouraging."
Trump's approval rating currently hangs around 39 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average, a number that gives Democrats little incentive to work with the president and gives vulnerable Republicans heartburn.
Republicans acknowledge that despite Trump's strong base, there is still expectation for reform and change. And a failure to deliver could be detrimental to the party. There is also a concern Trump voters could blame Congress for such failure and stay home for the midterm elections.
"Republican activists and committee people are anxious to see their hard work pay off … and that means getting reforms," said DiGiorgio. "If we don't get any progress, we are going to have an issue with our own base. But if we do, we could pick up support in areas more swing areas."