Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), known to her rivals as no-comment Comstock, is suddenly talkative.
In recent days, she has granted several interviews and stopped to talk to reporters in the halls of the Capitol — a rarity for her — to heap full-throated praise on the appointment of former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III as the special counsel in the Russia probe.
The shift is taking place as Comstock prepares to face what could be her toughest election yet, with at least five Democrats vying for their party’s nomination to challenge her in the midterm elections next year.
The issue also falls within her wheelhouse as a former chief congressional counsel whose two-year stint as director of public affairs at the Justice Department overlapped with Mueller’s tenure at the FBI.
“Now everyone can be assured that we’re going to have a thorough investigation and one that’s done as quickly and thoroughly as possible,” she said in a 25-minute phone interview Friday. “The rest of us need to go back to doing our work.”
Comstock said she would like to turn to tax reform and cybersecurity — issues that play well on the campaign trail in her Northern Virginia district and allow her to avoid the subject of President Trump.
Although Comstock outperformed Trump in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District by 16 points last year to win a second term, Democrats nationally are working to tie her to the president.
She has resisted the linkage. She was one of 20 House Republicans to vote no on the GOP’s health-care plan to replace the Affordable Care Act; the repeal-and-replace initiative was embraced and promoted by Trump. Now, Comstock is applauding Mueller’s appointment, something Trump has slammed as a “witch hunt.”
“The challenge for Comstock is to make sure Trump, who was a drag on her election in 2016, doesn’t become an anchor in 2018,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. “Creating distance from Trump makes a lot of sense, given that the nature of VA10 [Virginia’s 10th District] makes it the closest thing Virginia has to a swing district.”
Comstock supporters say her criticism of Trump is not new. In December 2015, a day after candidate Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country, Comstock panned the idea as “unconstitutional” and “un-American.”
But she studiously avoided saying whether she would vote for him until October 2016, when the “Access Hollywood” video surfaced of Trump bragging about groping women. She called his comments “vile” and called for him to drop out of the race.
Democrats running for the nomination to challenge her say voters will not be impressed by her recent support for the Mueller appointment.
“It’s great that she’s now talking to reporters about something that already happened, but how about leading for a change?” said state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-Loudoun), a former prosecutor.
Comstock should push for the release of Trump’s tax returns, force a vote on the creation of an independent investigative commission and hold a town hall meeting, she said.
Comstock’s vote against the Republican health-care bill was “somewhat disingenuous,” considering her six previous votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement plan ready, Wexton said.
Lindsey Davis Stover, another Democrat who is running, said constituents who have been unsuccessfully asking Comstock to hold a town hall meeting will not be appeased by her public support for the special counsel.
“While she may be talking to the media, she still has yet to talk to her constituents in a town hall meeting,” said Stover, who was a Veterans Affairs official in the Obama administration.
And Dan Helmer, an Army veteran and Democrat who is also running, said: “After months of standing idly by, Comstock finally taking a position on Russia — that’s not bravery.”
The two other Democrats who intend to run for the seat are Kimberly Adams, a former president of the Fairfax County teachers union, and David B. Hanson, a retired naval intelligence officer from Clifton.
The 10th Congressional District spans part of the Washington suburbs and conservative counties on Virginia’s border with West Virginia.
Comstock spoke out Friday, after attending a House briefing by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein about the investigation into possible collusion between associates of Trump and Russian officials during the presidential election campaign.
Comstock said Mueller’s work should not impede House and Senate intelligence committee investigations.
“Not only do I think it won’t, I don’t think it should,” she said. Congressional committees pursue the “public’s right to know,” she said, while Mueller will determine whether any laws were broken. If Congress uncovers criminal activity, lawmakers must refer their findings to the Justice Department, she said.
Yet, she added, Democrats who clamored for the appointment of a special counsel “don’t want to take yes for an answer” and continue to harp on potential wrongdoing from the White House.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) countered that he hopes Republicans do not use Mueller’s appointment as a cover to ignore what he said are other troubling activities in the Trump White House.
“I think they’re breathing an enormous sigh of relief,” he said. “This was rapidly getting out of control. This imposes some structure and for some period of time a news blackout — or at least that’s their hope — while Mueller ramps up his investigation.”
Comstock blasted what she called partisan attacks against her.
“Clearly you have partisan Democrats who prefer reciting DCCC talking points and having partisan fights instead of letting professionals conduct their investigations. And it’s surprising that they have so little confidence in Senator Mark Warner’s efforts in the Senate,” her spokesman, Jeff Marschner, said in a statement, referencing the senator from Virginia, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Farnsworth, the professor, said no matter how savvy Comstock may be, voters could judge her on the basis of the occupant of the White House, simply because they belong to the same party.
“This is one of those times when politicians only have so much control of their future,” he said.