Congressional Republicans are about to launch a major campaign for tax reform in the final few weeks of the year and have vowed to reinvigorate efforts in the Senate to speed up the confirmation of judicial nominees.
But most reporters didn't care much on Monday.
Republicans were instead peppered by the press with questions about the indictment of former Trump campaign officials. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business associate Paul Gates were indicted on 12 counts, and it was revealed that George Papadopoulos, Trump's former foreign policy advisor, admitted he lied to federal officials about his outreach to Russia.
Instead of asking about pending tax reform legislation, reporters wanted to know if lawmakers would soon take up legislation that would prevent President Trump from firing special counsel Robert Mueller in the wake of the indictments.
“I don’t know of any action by the committee,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who authored one of two such bills, told reporters who chased him down for a comment. “I don’t feel an urgent need to pass that law unless you show me an urgent reason Mr. Mueller is in jeopardy. I don’t think anyone in their right mind at the White House would think about replacing Mr. Mueller.”
A reporter then asked Graham if he thinks Trump “is in his right mind.”
“Yeah,” Graham answered. “He beat me.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also found himself flooded by questions about the news of the indictments after a speech about tax reform.
“It’s big news,” Ryan acknowledged, “but this is what you get from a special counsel.”
Ryan declined to say anything else about it.
“I really have nothing to add because I haven't even read it,” he explained.
In the Capitol, Senate Republicans held a usual Monday press conference to promote their new, accelerated pace for confirming judicial nominees, who have been held up for months by Democratic opposition and a short Senate work week.
The press event focused on the upcoming vote to confirm Judge Amy Barrett to serve on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
Barrett, a Catholic, had been aggressively questioned about her faith by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., during her confirmation hearing. At the hearing, Feinstein told Barrett, “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern.”
At Monday’s press conference, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called Feinstein’s remarks “inappropriate.”
But Grassley didn’t stick around for what likely would have been a barrage of eager questions from reporters about the Manafort indictment and how it might impact his panel’s probe into the matter.
Grassley slipped out a back door and his early departure was quickly noted and tweeted by reporters, who assumed he was trying to dodge their questions about the indictments.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also left the event early without taking questions. Spokespeople for both Grassley and McConnell said neither left to avoid reporters, but rather had other appointments awaiting them.
Spokesman David Popp noted that McConnell appears every Tuesday for reporters' questions and will do so again today.
Other Senate Republicans voting on judges late Monday were chased down hallways and into elevators by reporters intent on getting a sound bite reaction to the unfolding criminal cases into former Trump associates. Lawmakers who were caught insisted it would not get in the way of their agenda, which will primarily focus on tax reform.
“I think the president and the senators are all focused on delivering on tax reform,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. “That is where the oxygen has been directed.”
But reporters changed the subject to a bill Tillis co-authored with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., that would block the president from unilaterally removing special counsel Robert Mueller. Tillis downplayed the bill and said it is meant to ensure the Senate maintains investigatorial powers and is not meant to suggest Trump might try to fire Mueller.
“This isn’t just about this special counsel, it’s about other, future special counsels,” Tillis said.
Sen. Jim Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the indictments don’t change the panel’s probe into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. Lawmakers will “keep going, get the facts, and get it all resolved,” Lankford said.
He said the initial indictments show the alleged criminal activity appears “unrelated to the campaign.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., agreed.
“It’s a problem for the people who got indicted,” Shelby said. Of the Trump administration itself, he said, “I don’t think so yet, but we’ll see.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., the president’s major critic in the upper chamber who denounced Trump in a scathing floor speech this month, said the impact of the indictments on the Senate agenda and all-important tax reform are too early to determine.
“It depends how the president reacts,” Flake said.
The agenda could get derailed, he suggested, if Trump signals a move to fire Mueller. At that point, the Senate may move on the Graham or Tillis legislation to preserve Mueller’s position.
The two bills have languished in committee, but are getting renewed attention suddenly.
“Today’s events heighten curiosity about it at the least,” Flake said.