On Capitol Hill, Republican senators were troubled.
Troubled, on Tuesday, as they deboarded their little underground trams, which run underneath U.S. Capitol grounds, and as they scurried between their office buildings. Concerned, as they slipped onto their private senator elevators. Re-troubled, as they re-boarded their trams, all while being stalked by a roving mass of news reporters seeking statements about the latest borscht-scented scandal — Mr. Trump, in the Oval Office, running his mouth — to plop out of the White House.
“Obviously, this is concerning,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) as he settled into a tram seat. “If the reports are accurate, they’re concerning.”
“It is unquestionably important to protect the sources and methods used to collect intelligence,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), clasping his hands together and casting his eyes downward, as if lost in thought, as if he had not already been asked the same question by several other masses of reporters.
“I’m troubled when [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov is in the Oval Office,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), waiting for his elevator in the Russell building. “I can’t imagine why he’d ever be allowed in the Oval Office.”
So. . . do you think should there be consequences, senator?
“What consequences do you think that I have?” McCain snapped, clearly frustrated. “You tell me. You are asking me what the consequences could be when you aren’t even telling me what consequences there could be. I can’t answer your question. I can’t and no one else can. I’ve been around here a long time, my friend, and if someone asked me a rational question, I would be more than happy to try to answer it.”
Later, he apologized. “I’m sorry if I’m short with you.”
So troubled. Lawmakers — particularly those in the party controlling the White House and both houses of Congress — have spent the majority of this administration in a state of being so achingly, tenderly troubled.
Last week, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was “troubled” by former FBI director James B. Comey’s abrupt firing, as was Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). Back in January, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was “troubled” by allegations that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had inappropriate discussions with a Russian contact during the transition.
The contact in question? Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who resurfaced this week as one of the Russian visitors — along with Lavrov — who were recipients of Trump’s Oval Office intelligence-dishing, a man whose repeated cameos in the American political drama will surely turn into an assignment for a regular SNL cast member.
Being “troubled” is a measured reaction — a grown-up, politically safe one. If you say you’re “troubled,” no one can say you approached the situation with too much glibness. Nobody can accuse you of histrionics. Being troubled in times of politically charged scandal is the equivalent of sending “thoughts and prayers” in times of politically fraught tragedy.
The phrase is always appropriate. The phrase is eventually meaningless.
“I’m glad that they’re troubled,” sighed Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) as he, too, navigated the Capitol grounds on Tuesday. “Saying you’re troubled is pretty empty if you’re not willing to do anything about it.”
The troubling trouble, on Tuesday, seemed to be that nobody was exactly sure what to do about it, at least not yet. “You want to let the dust settle,” Flake said.
“I’m going to wait and withhold judgment,” said Cruz.
“I don’t know what the consequences are going to be except for the decision of the American people,” McCain said. (Can the American people appoint a special prosecutor? Can the American people issue subpoenas?)
At one point early Tuesday morning — the usual twitching hour for President Trump — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) launched his own Twitter blitz, sharing biblical phrases with his followers, in an apparent attempt to seek guidance from a higher power than the U. S. Congress.
“Commit to the Lord whatever you do,” he wrote, quoting a verse from the book of Proverbs in one tweet. “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid,” he wrote in another, quoting the book of John.
Do not let your hearts be troubled? Was this a tweet mean to calm his fellow senators? (What 140-character guidance might he have for the rest of the American public? “Do not let your heart have a heart attack, and hold onto your butts, folks”?)
Back at the Capitol, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) was actually not troubled.
“I don’t use that word,” he said as he disembarked from a tram. He noted that he is a man who pilots small airplanes, sometimes upside down, and therefore does not trouble easily. Besides, he said, he trusts the account of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who told reporters in a news conference Tuesday that Trump didn’t do anything untoward.
“I trust him more than I trust the media,” Inhofe said of McMaster. “I think we have all the information we need.”