Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, put out a statement today:

Today’s indictments of two top Trump campaign officials, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, is a significant and sobering step in what will be a complex and likely lengthy investigation by the Special Counsel. That is why it is imperative that Congress take action now to protect the independence of the Special Counsel, wherever or however high his investigation may lead. Members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, must also make clear to the President that issuing pardons to any of his associates or to himself would be unacceptable, and result in immediate, bipartisan action by Congress.

He continued in remarkably restrained terms:

We have also learned this morning that, during this investigation, George Papadopoulos made false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russians at the same time he was serving as an adviser to the Trump campaign. This is just the latest in a series of undisclosed contacts, misleading public statements, potentially compromising information, and highly questionable actions from the time of the Trump campaign that together, remain a cause for deep concern and continued investigation.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will continue its bipartisan probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election.

As to Papadopoulos, he certainly could have labeled the plea deal as powerful evidence of “collusion” — but that is not a legal term. It is, however, devastating for the White House and right-wing media propaganda outfits that have been screaming “No collusion!” at the top of their collective lungs.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a similar admonition. “The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way,” he said. “If he does so, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally, and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues.”

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Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, was only a bit more pointed: “Today we learned that one of then-candidate Trump’s foreign policy advisors lied to the FBI about his attempts to coordinate meetings between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. We separately learned that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was deeply connected to and profited from Russian interests in Ukraine, and he allegedly laundered millions of dollars through foreign accounts and lied about it to the U.S. government.” Leahy also warned against “direct or indirect attempts to interfere with or undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation are dangerous, and could possibly constitute obstruction of justice.”

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House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) lamely insisted, “Nothing’s going to derail what we’re doing in Congress.” Not exactly a statesmanlike message, but at least he was honest. Republicans don’t care what President Trump does so long as they get tax reform. We once more see how small Republicans can be, how intentionally oblivious to the scandal enveloping the White House. Of course the swirl of criminal actions against those closely linked to the president will be hugely disruptive and raise new questions about Trump’s judgment. It will be more than a little embarrassing that Trump’s former campaign chairman is accused of tax crimes — and thereby re-raises Trump’s failure to release his own tax returns.

Republicans are going to be asked again and again at every news conference and interview their reaction to the indictments. If they are wise and want to preserve some semblance of fitness to govern, Senate and House GOP leadership should spare members the constant questions by putting out a joint statement agreeing with Warner and Schumer, namely these are serious matters and they will not tolerate pardons or other interference with special prosecutor’s Robert S. Mueller III’s work. From here on out Republican members can then simply refer back to the statement.

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Lawmakers on both sides should cease deflection and cut to the chase: If Trump tries to shut down the investigation or raises the prospect of pardons, they will insist upon impeachment proceedings.

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They should also say what should be obvious but which the White House desperately wants to avoid acknowledging: “Collusion” has been demonstrated in the Papadopoulos indictment and other publicly-known events, including the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 (just a couple months after Papadopoulos started plotting with his Russian contacts). Insisting there is no collusion and the investigation is a “witch hunt” is false and constitutes an effort to interfere with, malign and discredit his own Justice Department. While it is not illegal (most likely), it is an abuse of power — and yes, it should be considered as such in any action Congress should eventually take.

Moreover, efforts from Republican chairmen such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to divert attention and tie up taxpayer resources in long-ago debunked claims is reprehensible and an abrogation of their oaths of office.

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Finally, lawmakers should start demanding the White House explain how the campaign came to hire Manafort and Rick Gates (who remained on the transition), whose dealings with shady foreign figures should have disqualified him. Did they even bother to vet him? Whose job was it to check out these figures?

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Republicans and Democrats need to start taking this unprecedented scandal seriously. That means sounding the alarm to prevent a fatal error in judgment by the president (e.g., firing Mueller or pardoning the accused) and it means demanding answers, at the very least, regarding the hiring of such egregiously unfit advisers.

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