Republicans representing GOP-dominated states and congressional districts are being challenged by constituents about Russia and, in some cases, whether they support an independent investigation into President Trump’s potential ties to the country.
A USA TODAY analysis of local news coverage from Montana to Virginia found several incidences of voters pressing Republican lawmakers on Russia, in addition to hot topics such as Obamacare and immigration restrictions.
Rep. Tom Reed, who represents a rural, working-class district on the southwest tip of New York, was peppered by a number of constituents during his first town hall at a senior center, with one exchange in particular turning testy as Reed said he hadn’t seen enough evidence to merit a formal probe. Some in the crowd yelled “What are you covering up?” and “Russia!” as the woman called the issue “embarrassing” for the nation.
Montana Sen. Steve Daines recently told tele-townhall callers the government has “got to investigate” after being asked “what’s going on” with the Trump administration and Russia.
The confrontations show that Trump’s potential ties to Russia are resonating beyond the Capital Beltway to become a grass-roots issue.
As more information about the Trump campaign’s communications with Russian officials has come to light, the issue is animating some of the town halls across the country. It’s unclear how many conservative lawmakers are being questioned about Russia — many Republicans are avoiding in-person town halls, insisting that organized protesters are crowding out constituents.
Yet the fact that the issue appears to be breaking through in a number of so-called red states and deep into districts that supported Trump is significant. For instance, Trump won Reed’s district by almost 15 points. Trump and his team have sought to turn the spotlight away from Russia in recent days, with some success as his comments condemning a rash of anti-Semitic vandalism and his attacks on the mainstream media have competed for news coverage.
Concerns about Russia have intensified since Trump’s dismissal of his former national security adviser, retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, exposed his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States around the date in December that former president Barack Obama had announced sanctions to punish Russia for trying to influence the U.S. election.
So far, most Republicans other than Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have rejected an independent probe similar to the one formed to investigate the Sept. 11 terror attacks, arguing that the House and Senate Intelligence committees are capable of conducting their own investigations.
Five congressional committees are now investigating Russian ties to Trump’s presidential campaign and the president’s handling of information about his aides’ contacts with Russia. Yet some of those probes appear to be more serious than others, with bipartisan members of the Intelligence panels in both chambers vowing aggressive inquiries.
For now, Democratic leaders seem OK with allowing the Intelligence committees to take the lead. Other rank-and-file Democrats argue it’s unclear how much information from closed-door committee deliberations will reach the public. There are also concerns about the investigations becoming politicized since Republicans control both chambers of Congress and will be investigating the leader of their own party.
In his first town hall since the November election, Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford said Russia is no friend to the United States and that there was “no question” Russia interfered in the election but that the House and Senate Intelligence committees would be investigating the Russian interference. Yet Lankford also said it would take too long for members of an independent commission to get clearances.
While Senate Republican leaders are holding firm against an independent probe, there are at least some signs of cracks in the party. For instance, Rep. Scott Taylor, who represents Virginia Beach, Va., recently told a crowd of almost people who filled a high school auditorium that he supports an independent, bipartisan investigation into Russian influence in the election, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Va., told a town hall meeting that he favors a bipartisan probe into Russian influence in the 2016 election. (Photo: Steve Earley, AP)
Others are defending Trump’s approach to better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia said having “outsiders” in the White House is allowing the government to “look at the world through new eyes,” the Gwinnett Daily Post reported.
Even so, he, too, said he wants more information about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador in December that involved U.S. sanctions Russia was seeking to squelch.
Shortly after Flynn’s call, Putin announced he would not retaliate, which prompted a tweet from Trump calling it a “great move” and remarking: “I always knew he was very smart!”
Russian campaign ties
Flynn is the second Trump campaign official to be felled by his ties to Russia. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked as a lobbyist for a former pro-Russia Ukrainian president. Yet Trump has continued to insist that there were no communications between his campaign officials and the Russians.
U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, have concluded the Kremlin was trying to influence the U.S. election, initially by sowing distrust in public officials and institutions and then by trying to help Trump. During the campaign, Trump took a number of positions, including criticism of NATO, in line with Russian interests, and his officials altered the GOP party platform to nix a call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces.
Trump’s last news conference during the campaign was in late July, when he commented that perhaps Russia should hack Hillary Clinton to find “emails that are missing.” It was during that period that the group WikiLeaks, tied to Russia, released a series of communications between Clinton’s campaign staff. The timing was notable. It was just an hour or so after a 2005 Access Hollywood videotape of Trump bragging about kissing and groping women surfaced that WikiLeaks began dropping emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
On Friday, FBI Director James Comey delivered a classified briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russia, after which the committee sent formal requests to more than a dozen groups, agencies and individuals asking them to preserve all materials related to the committee’s investigation.
Later that day Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted that he is now “very confident” that the committee will conduct a throughout bipartisan investigation.
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