The Washington Post Sunday

‘Stop’: GOP avoids discussing Trump’s legal woes

- BY SEUNG MIN KIM seungmin.kim@washpost.com

A reporter hadn’t even finished asking about President Trump and the sentencing of his former lawyer Michael Cohen when Republican Sen. James E. Risch indicated he would have none of it.

“Oh, I don’t do interviews on any of that stuff,” Risch said when questioned about Trump’s shifting explanatio­ns on efforts to buy the silence of women who claimed sexual dalliances with him. Well, why not? “I don’t do any interviews on anything to do with Trump and that sort of thing, okay?” Risch (Idaho) responded curtly before quickly slipping into the Senate chamber.

As Trump’s legal woes — rooted in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe and the Southern District of New York’s investigat­ion into the hush payments — continued to spiral this past week with new revelation­s and fresh presidenti­al denials, congressio­nal Republican­s found themselves in a familiar position: struggling to account for Trump’s behavior and not-so-consistent statements about his personal controvers­ies.

This past week, Republican­s responded to the latest chapter in Trump’s saga by rationaliz­ing his actions of those of someone who didn’t know any better, carefully rebuking his Cohen-induced reactions while praising his policies, or putting full faith in his explanatio­ns — even as they’ve changed over time.

Or — as Risch showed — by not answering the question altogether.

“Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said, as a reporter tried to ask him about Trump denying that he directed Cohen to pay women in exchange for keeping quiet about their claimed sexual encounters with the now president. “I don’t know anything except what I hear and read about all that.”

“Stop,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “I have not heard what you told me he said. Until I read, actually read, what the president said, I won’t comment on it.”

“Honestly, I don’t think that’s a fair question,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), when asked if he believed Trump’s explanatio­n. “I wasn’t there. I don’t have any way of assessing that.”

Throughout his presidency, Trump has kept congressio­nal Republican­s on edge, throwing them off with a single tweet or surprise utterance at a news conference — be it on the legislativ­e agenda, his executive decisions or the daily ups and downs of his chaotic administra­tion.

But particular­ly regarding the legal matters, which continue to unfold by the day in both New York and Washington, many senior Republican­s have learned the best answer is one that just tells everyone: Wait. Be patient. Let Mueller’s team — as well as the other investigat­ors — finish their job.

“Until we have a full picture, until the full evidence is presented by the Southern District or charges filed or that sort of thing, I just think it’s really hard to react or draw any hard and fast conclusion­s,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who will be the second-ranking Senate Republican come January, said in an interview this week.

Slightly chuckling, Thune continued: “I’m sure that he, again, coming out of his private life, sort of views this as not something that was done to impact or affect a campaign — that it’s something that he was trying to deal with in the way that he perhaps has dealt with those issues in the past.”

His fellow South Dakotan, Sen. Mike Rounds (R), was similarly gentle, acknowledg­ing some sympathy for Trump wanting what he believes to be a private matter to be as obscured as possible.

“I think this president means very well. I think he has the best interests of our country at heart,” Rounds said. “Sometimes, I think many of us would probably approach and share messages in a different manner in which this president has.”

Does Rounds wish Trump would stop tweeting?

“I really wish he’d stop tweeting,” Rounds responded.

Indeed, Trump has been a veritable font of falsehoods, with dozens of his inaccurate claims spread through his Twitter account. As of Oct. 30, Trump has made 6,420 false or misleading claims since he took office, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker database.

Of those, 1,098 were delivered through Trump’s favorite social media platform.

Despite that very spotty track record, Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill still have put their trust in him. In particular, they say Cohen — who was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for a litany of offenses, including lying — is an untrustwor­thy source.

When he was asked last week whether he believed Trump’s claims that he didn’t personally direct the hush-money payments, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) responded, “I’ ll accept his word.”

Hatch was more blunt in comments earlier in the week, telling CNN, “I don’t care” about Trump potentiall­y being implicated in crimes in documents from prosecutor­s in the Southern District of New York. On Friday, Hatch significan­tly walked back those remarks, calling them “irresponsi­ble and a poor reflection on my lengthy record of dedication to the rule of law.”

Like many of his Republican colleagues, Sen. Jerry Moran (RKan.) declined to comment much on Trump’s ever-evolving explanatio­ns of how much he knew — or directed — the hush payments to the women who have alleged sexual encounters with him: former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.

But he did sound a warning — however gently delivered it was.

“You know, I didn’t hear the president,” Moran said, asked how much stock he puts in Trump’s latest denial vis-a-vis Cohen. “I don’t have a comment to that question, other than it’s always important for everyone — to the best of their ability — to tell the truth.”

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