Three times on Tuesday Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about Donald Trump Jr.’s attempt during the campaign to collect damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton from Russia.
And three times the Republican leader swatted back the inquiries, bluntly saying he would rely on the investigations already underway into the Trump administration’s Russia ties and make no further comment.
The back and forth was a well-worn script that continues to play out on Capitol Hill amid the almost daily drip-drip-drip of new details about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.
Republicans may privately grumble about the president — and many do — but they have been reluctant to publicly criticize President Trump and risk the wrath of his Twitter assaults, from which they have little political cover.
“My guess is they’ll continue to stick by him,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist based in Texas. “There’s a real sense of, ‘Let’s make the most of what we have.’”
Mackowiak added, “No one wants to be the first Republican to step out and distance themselves.”
The political calculation is clear, given that Republicans control the House, Senate and the White House, and as lawmakers face the 2018 midterm election.
Their constituents in red states and conservative House districts still largely back the president, and to break with the White House would invite criticism and could cost them votes.
Even if Republican lawmakers mustered the courage to buck Trump — on the Russia inquiry or on other issues like healthcare or tax reform where they part ways with him — they would then face pressure to do something about it.
Few senators or representatives are willing to be the army of one leading calls for investigations beyond those already underway. Most are still hopeful they can plug away at their legislative agendas and tally some accomplishments for reelection.
And so week by week, Republicans either brush past reporters or simply shrug and say they don’t have much to offer on the latest swirling developments in the Russia investigation.
Most stick with the line often used by McConnell or House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, which is that they are relying on the inquiries underway by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the House and Senate intelligence committees to resolve the matter.
“I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of whatever may have happened,” McConnell said Tuesday.
Ryan has not publicly addressed the meeting between Trump’s son and a Russian lawyer, nor did his office respond to a request Tuesday for comment.
Republicans in Congress face their own problems. Lawmakers are so worried about heading home for August recess with few big accomplishments that some asked leaders to cancel the monthlong summer recess. McConnell agreed Tuesday and announced the Senate would stay in session for part of the month.
Senators are struggling to fulfill their promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, and appear no closer to having the support needed from at least 50 senators ahead of next week’s vote.
They have made little tangible progress on other big-ticket campaign items, including tax reform, and they are arguing among themselves over the budget.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) conceded Tuesday that concerns over Russia “may be legitimate,” but he said it was “not in our lanes.”
“It has nothing to do with what we need to get done in August,” he said. “That’s the very thing we need to not get distracted by.”
Lawmakers said Tuesday that Trump voters back home seem more concerned about healthcare or easing what businesses see as excessive government regulation.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) wouldn’t go so far as to dismiss the latest revelations as a “nothing burger,” as some have called it, but “it looks like to me that not a lot happened in the meeting that was pertinent.”
Besides, he said, consumer confidence was at a 13-year high, and “consumers are a good gauge of what’s happening.”
“We’ve got a new president’s been in office six months,” he added. “The first six months of every president, I go back and look, have not been exactly smooth.”
A few key Republicans, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), along with others in the House, have raised more public concerns over the Russia questions and pressed for deeper investigations into the links between Trump’s campaign and President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Graham told reporters that if candidates get an offer from a foreign government for help on their campaigns, “the answer is no.”
Donald Trump Jr. “definitely” has to testify before investigators, Graham said. “That email is disturbing,” he said. “On its face this is very problematic.”
But such voices remain outliers in the Republican Party, and Democrats have piled on criticism, deriding Republicans for failing to confront Trump over what many Democrats view as a serious threat to the U.S. government and American democracy.
“Has any elected Republican said anything brave today? Oh, never mind,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a Twitter message.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) suggested treason may have been committed.
Asked whether the latest Russia developments concerned him, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said simply, “Nah.”
Corker was at the doctor’s office Tuesday waiting for a checkup when he saw a TV report about the issue. He said he found it hard to get worked up about it.
“I don’t know, it’s kind of losing focus,” Corker said. “I’m focused on other things — the Russia sanctions, healthcare and other kinds of things, and relying on the Intelligence Committee to do their work in a good way.”
Mackowiak said the problem for Republicans, and those who want Republicans to stand up to Trump, was that the Russia investigation would not likely be resolved any time soon.
“People’s expectations that Republicans are going to start calling for Trump’s impeachment,” he said, “that’s not going to happen.”