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Ryan: GOP will ‘follow the facts’ on Trump, Comey

Billy House and Anna Edgerton
Bloomberg News

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he still has full confidence in President Donald Trump but that lawmakers must "follow the facts wherever they lead" as the speaker sought to tamp down Republican unease over the turmoil engulfing the White House.

"Now is the time to gather all the pertinent information," Ryan told reporters Wednesday after a private meeting of House Republicans. "Our job is to be responsible, sober and focus only on gathering the facts."

Trump is facing the deepest crisis of his presidency after a memo written by former FBI Director James Comey surfaced Tuesday describing an Oval Office meeting between the two men. Comey wrote that the president asked him to drop an investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn,according to a person who was given a copy of the document.

The White House was already on the defensive over the president’s firing of Comey a week ago and over a report Monday that Trump disclosed sensitive intelligence to Russian officials. The FBI and congressional committees are investigating Russian meddling in the U.S. election and possible ties to Trump’s campaign.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is scheduled to meet privately with all members of the Senate on Thursday to discuss his role in firing Comey last week. Lawmakers of both parties are demanding that Comey testify before them in public, though the time and place haven’t been determined.

The turmoil spilled into financial markets as U.S. stocks fell the most since March, measures of volatility spiked higher and Treasuries rallied with gold.

"It is obvious that there are some people out there that want to harm the president," Ryan of Wisconsin told reporters. "But we have an obligation to carry out our oversight regardless of which party is in the White House."

Ryan said lawmakers want to hear from Comey about "why he didn’t take action at the time" if his allegation that Trump asked him to stop investigating Flynn is true. A day before Comey’s meeting with Trump, Flynn had been ousted for what the White House said were misleading accounts of his conversations with Russia’s U.S. ambassador.

The Comey memo’s emergence had congressional Democrats suggesting that the president engaged in obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.

Republicans in Congress are trying to project a business-as-usual approach amid the chaos. At their news conference, Ryan and other House Republican leaders talked about National Police Week and their plans to overhaul the U.S. tax code before reporters raised questions about the Trump controversies.

"We’re going to keep doing our jobs, we’re going to keep passing our bills, we’re going to keep advancing our reforms," Ryan said.

Lawmakers said they’re trying not to get distracted from their agenda.

“We’ll just continue to do what we’re doing,”said Representative Gus Bilirakis of Florida. “Move on to tax reform. I think that with Paul, we’ll just keep moving forward.”

Representative Trent Franks of Arizona said the party’s agenda isn’t in jeopardy and that an independent commission isn’t needed to investigate the Russia matter.

"The big issue here is that I am convinced the president did nothing that he felt was outside the best interests of the country,” Franks said.

The White House denied Comey’s version of events in an emailed statement that said Trump“has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation."

The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, on Tuesday demanded all Federal Bureau of Investigation memos and other records documenting communications between Comey and Trump by May 24.

“If true, these memoranda raise questions as to whether the president attempted to influence or impede the FBI’s investigation as it relates to Lt. Gen. Flynn,” Chaffetz wrote.

Lawmakers need to hear Comey testify and get documents or transcripts of any meetings he had with Trump, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told CNN on Wednesday.

"Unfortunately the administration has given such conflicting information, the president’s own tweets at times seem to contradict the statements made by staff," she said.

In previous months, Republican lawmakers were more likely to defend Trump — even after he and his administration made comments and policy changes that generated intense criticism. That began to change after Trump fired Comey on May 9 and continued this week with a report that Trump revealed highly classified intelligence to senior Russian officials, followed by news of his request to drop the Flynn probe.

Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia, whose district is home to large numbers of FBI and CIA employees, said Trump’s disclosure of classified intelligence to the Russians is “highly troubling.”

“We need to have immediate classified briefings on what occurred at this meeting so that Congress can at least know as much as Russian leaders,” she said in a statement.

Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, who is heading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference in last year’s election, said Tuesday night that members of Congress have to “compartmentalize” amid White House distractions.

Asked how Republicans will still get their work done, Conaway said, “Well, you get up every morning, put your shoes on and go to work.”

Some Republicans continue to stand by their president. Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Trump is still positioned to bring needed change to Washington.

“When people elected the president, they knew they were electing somebody different because they wanted things to change in Washington, and I think he has unique potential to bring change to the system and voters knew what they were doing,” Blunt said.

Democrats were far less sparing in their criticism and repeated their demands for a special prosecutor.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee, called the memo as reported “powerful evidence of obstruction of justice.”

“At best, President Trump has committed a grave abuse of executive power,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement. "At worst, he has obstructed justice."