In the hours following President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, Capitol Hill was a roller coaster of serious and potentially far-reaching reactions from lawmakers about how best to move forward.
In the U.S. Senate, there were at least a half-dozen major developments by 11 a.m. Some Republicans were troubled, while others were less so. Some Democrats were demanding a special prosecutor as others were implying the attorney general should step down.
Here is a look, by rough timeline, at how the scene played out.
(Democratic) senators in their seats
At 9:30 am, the Senate opened with dramatic optics. The Democratic (left) side of the Senate chamber was a packed set of seats – nearly every member there. Across the aisle, the Republican section was mostly empty, dotted with nine of 52 of the party’s members. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer gave dueling speeches.
- Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: “The dismissal of Director Comey establishes a very troubling pattern. This Administration has now removed several law enforcement officials in a position to conduct independent investigations of the President and his administration – from acting Attorney General Sally Yates to Preet Bharara, and now, Jim Comey. What should happen now … what must happen now … is that Mr. Rosenstein appoints a special prosecutor to oversee this investigation.”
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Today, we will no doubt hear calls for a new investigation which could only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done, but also to let this body and the national security community to develop the countermeasures and warfighting doctrine to see that it doesn’t occur again… Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein was just confirmed on a bipartisan basis — 94 to 6 — and that sort of fair consideration should continue when the Senate receives an FBI Director nominee.”
Republicans (very) divided in the halls
Just more than an hour later, the Senate held its first series of votes. The small hallway that is senators’ most direct path to the elevators is crammed with so many reporters and members that several senators cannot get on.
Republicans exited the session divided into camps.
- We have faith in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation. We can still trust the FBI. They are professionals. This was a common theme for many Senate Republicans, including Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala, Sen.Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
- Still considering. When asked about a special counsel or special Senate session, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, replied she was “considering all that.” Tennessee Republican Bob Corker told reporters discussions were quickly underway and “I’ll have more in the next 24 hours.”
- A special counsel would harm the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Sens.. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, both said they are concerned a special counsel would result in freezing some witnesses and information the Senate hopes to gather. (Democrats later disputed that.)
- The main issue was timing. Many Republicans expressed the president’s reasons for firing Comey were understandable — it was the White House timing for the decision that sparked headlines. “There is no constitutional crisis. The (letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about Comey) is pretty convincing,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Utah, told NewsHour as he ran out the Senate steps to a hearing. “The timing,” he said, pausing, “is a problem.”
- Everything is concerning. John McCain, the Republican from Arizona, was chief among those in this camp. “I’m concerned about everything,” he told reporters regarding Comey. He stressed his repeated call for not a special counsel, but a special Senate committee to investigate the Russian election meddling.
Democrats are incredibly united
Thirty minutes later, Democratic senators return to the Capitol for a special meeting of their conference. As they exit, reporters again crowd. This time, most Democrats said little. But what they said was significant.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein should rescue themselves from considering whether to select a special counsel. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a Senate Intelligence Committee member, led this argument and did not hold back, telling NewsHour that Comey had notified Congressional officials that he wanted to expand the investigation in recent days.
- Republicans should pursue this investigation independently. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told the NewsHour that Sessions — who removed himself from the investigation in March — broke his own recusal vow with Comey’s removal. He also told NewsHour he wonders if Republicans wanted to pursue the investigation “in an independent way” to ensure “issues aren’t held up.”
- Trump’s reasoning doesn’t pass the “smell test.” Feinstein took issue with the White House argument that Comey’s firing had to do with Clinton emails. She added: “Why did the president even bring up Russia if Russia was not a factor?” she added, pointing to Trump’s mention of the investigation in his letter to Comey.
- Comey should still testify. Schumer said this several times on the Hill on Wednesday. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a separate request Wednesday for Comey to testify before a closed session of the committee next week, according to the committee’s spokeswoman. Warner said Comey had not yet responded. Warner and committee leader Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) also issued a subpoena for former National Security Advisor Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, requesting documents relevant to the Committee’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election. The Committee first requested these documents in late April, according to a statement released by Burr’s office, but he declined.
Pence is defending Trump on the Hill
By 11 a.m. EST the vice president was on Capitol Hill explaining the decision to fire the head of the FBI as the agency needed “a fresh start.”
In part, Pence blamed Comey for the chaos surrounding an administration that “is moving past the difficult politics of the last year that has swirled around Director Comey’s leadership.”
Trump “provided strong leadership to act” according to Pence, who also noted the decision on who will replace Comey will “take the time necessary to find an individual of great experience and great integrity.”
Other Republicans echoed their confidence in Trump — and in a continuing investigation into Russia. Sen. John Cornyn, R – Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican and a Trump confidant, spoke briefly to reporters in a corner hallway of the Capitol to defend the president.
“It won’t have any impact except perhaps intensifying the Russia investigations,” Cornyn said, assuring reporters an investigation is continuing in some undisrupted fashion.