Republican reactions to the news that FBI Director James Comey was abruptly and unceremoniously dismissed Tuesday have fallen along a broad spectrum — from “disappointed” (Senate dad John McCain) to defiant (“Suck it up and move on,” Sen. Chuck Grassley growled on Fox & Friends).
McCain was one of the earliest Republicans to pipe up; shortly after the news broke, he renewed his calls for an independent commission to investigation Russia’s interference in the election. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who also previously demanded a select committee with full investigatory powers, joined McCain, reiterating his call on Tuesday.
Rep. Justin Amash was also eager to see Congress take action, tweeting Tuesday night the he and his staff were in the process of “reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia” after Trump’s “bizarre” termination letter. Sen. Jeff Flake said he was dumbfounded. “I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing. I just can’t do it,” he tweeted.
Other Republicans who spoke up said variations on the same: Rep. Elise Stefanik had “concerns” about the decision to dismiss Comey, Rep. Lynn Jenkins found it “concerning,” Rep. Martha McSally believed it to be “deeply concerning;” Rep. French Hill saw merely “cause for concern” and Sen. Lisa Murkowski “serious cause for concern.”
Richard Burr, chair of the Senate committee investigating Russian interference in the election, said he was “troubled” by the timing and rationale, while Senate colleague Ben Sasse agreed both were “very troubling” indeed.
But even those GOP Congress members who expressed concern stopped well short of calling for any kind of action. Sen. Bob Corker said Comey’s firing “will raise questions,” and emphasized staying the course and ensuring the “ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference.”
Without more forceful Republican support, there aren’t a lot options for holding the Trump administration accountable. The mechanism that once existed to appoint a special prosecutor was quietly done away with in 1999 after Ken Starr spent nearly $80 million on a series of fruitless investigations of the Clinton administration. To get a similar kind of investigation today, members of Congress will have to rely on the deputy attorney general to select and oversee that prosecutor’s work — that would be Rod Rosenstein, the same deputy AG who wrote the memo recommending Comey’s termination.
The Senate could, in theory, create an independent bipartisan commission similar to the one formed to investigate the 9/11 attacks, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as he made clear on the floor of Congress Wednesday, is not inclined to do so. It would “only serve to impede the current work being done” by a committee which operated until very recently without any full-time staff, McConnell said.