WASHINGTON — The chaos and crisis enveloping President Trump’s White House generated growing frustrations Wednesday among Republicans in Congress as they were put on the defensive by Democrats who redoubled demands for tough investigations of the new administration’s ties to Russia.
Tensions rose on Capitol Hill after Trump forced his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to resign Monday night amid press reports of Flynn’s contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States and related accounts Tuesday of even more widespread contact between Trump campaign figures and Russia during the 2016 campaign.
South Dakota Senator John Thune, a member of Senate Republican leadership, expressed dismay at the waves of controversy coming from the administration. He urged the White House to cooperate with congressional committees in answering all the questions about contacts between Trump’s associates and Russia.
“There are things that we want to get done here. We want to have a clear-eyed focus on our agenda, and this constant disruption and drumbeat with these questions that keep getting raised is a distraction. There’s no way around it,” he said.
His advice to the White House: “Get it all out there and put it behind you and let’s move forward.”
“It’s time to get past the launch phase,” he added.
But Republicans led by Senate majority Leader Mitch McConnell have dismissed the need for a special committee to investigate the Flynn incident.
“I don’t think we need a select committee. We know how to do our work. We have an Intelligence Committee,” McConnell said Wednesday morning in an interview with MSNBC.
Still, he promised a vigorous investigation. And other senators assumed an aggressive posture.
“I can’t say with confidence on anything except that this is a serious issue and has to be addressed,” said GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona, when asked if he felt confident President Trump was not involved in directing his former National Security adviser Michael Flynn to discuss sanctions with Russia.
“The president’s national security adviser did not tell the vice president of the United States the truth and had to be fired,’’ McCain said. “That brings up a lot of questions and those questions need to be to be answered.”
Between the Flynn resignation and “everything else going on in the White House, it is dysfunctional on national security,” added McCain, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the new administration on Capitol Hill but had previously praised Flynn.
He said lawmakers needed the answers to some basic questions before he could say whether any sort of special investigative committee should be set up to handle the investigation.
Senate Democrats held an emergency caucus meeting Wednesday to discuss how they should handle the growing controversy. Going into the meeting, a number of Democrats were calling for a special independent commission to be established to probe the Flynn incident.
Senators emerged to say that for now Democratic leaders were satisfied with the steps being taken by the Senate Intelligence Committee, even though some other Democrats insisted an independent commission was preferred.
“We need an independent investigation. I am just not convinced that Mitch McConnell is going to let the Intelligence Committee get to the real story,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.
Democrats did issue a united call for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations into ties between Trump’s aides and Russia, because they don’t believe the former Alabama senator can be impartial toward a president for whom he vigorously campaigned.
“The Justice Department’s own guidelines demand that Attorney General Sessions remove himself from this matter immediately. If he does not, the investigation will remain jaundiced, and the American people will doubt the credibility of its findings. If this trail leads to the Oval Office, the person investigating that trail should not be the same person who helped put President Trump there,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Schumer also said Democrats want all records pertinent to the investigation to be preserved and all implicated members of Trump’s campaign to publicly testify before Senate committees.
“I’ve been in Congress for a long time. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Schumer said. “We are Americans before we are Democrats and Republicans. Nothing less than our system of checks and balances, democratic institutions, rule of law, and our national security is at stake.”
A group of 10 Democratic senators sent a letter to Sessions Wednesday demanding that he appoint an independent special prosecutor “to investigate collusion with the Russian government by General Flynn and other Trump campaign, transition, and Administrative officials.”
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who sits on the intelligence panel, told reporters that he wants Flynn; Sally Yates – the former acting attorney general Trump fired; and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to testify publicly before the committee. He said the committee’s chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, had expressed interest in that as well.
The Washington Post reported that Yates, who Trump fired after she refused to defend his controversial immigration executive order, had communicated concerns to the White House that Flynn had misled Trump officials about the nature of his discussions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Manafort, meanwhile, was named in a New York Times report as having had contacts with Russian intelligence officials while working on Trump’s campaign.
The goal of the intelligence committee would be to have hearings related to the Russia investigation to be done publicly “as much as possible,” said Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who is also on the intelligence committee.