After an initial burst of skittish and incredulous text messages and phone calls, many congressional Republicans on Wednesday offered support for President-elect Donald Trump in the wake of news reports about compromising material that Russia has allegedly gathered on the incoming president.
On a busy day of Trump’s first news conference in months and hearings for several Cabinet nominees, Republicans did not clamor to bring the issue of Trump and Russia to the fore. They offered support for him when questioned by reporters, as well as criticism of news organizations and accusations that the U.S. intelligence community has acted politically.
“There are politics being played . . . from my standpoint, it certainly appears that way. There seems to be an effort somewhere to undermine the legitimacy of this election,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
It was yet another example of the president-elect and his allies in Congress delicately working together while trying not to be consumed by the latest Trump-related controversy.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, addressed the unconfirmed allegations cautiously, as they called for a deeper look into the situation and urged against politicizing it.
Questions about Russia’s relationship with Trump have been swirling on Capitol Hill for months, and they continue to be a focal point. A briefing for all House members about Russian operatives hacking the Democratic Party during the 2016 campaign has been scheduled for Friday morning, according to a House GOP aide with knowledge of the plans.
A classified report presented to President Obama and Trump last week included a two-page summary of allegations that the Russian government possesses compromising material on Trump, according to U.S. officials. The officials said U.S. intelligence agencies have not substantiated those allegations.
Late Tuesday and early Wednesday, Republican leaders were in close communication by phone and email with Trump’s advisers in New York, in particular with incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, according to the people close to the leadership.
Priebus assured Republicans that the allegations about Trump were false and that Trump would be defiant in disputing them, the people said. They were not authorized to speak publicly about the conversations.
At his news conference, Trump went after the media aggressively for publishing what he called questionable intelligence. He declined to comment on classified information.
BuzzFeed News published a series of reports totaling 35 pages allegedly created by a former British intelligence official — and the basis for the two-page intelligence report. The Washington Post has tried unsuccessfully for several weeks to substantiate the details of the reports.
Congressional Republicans seemed to follow Priebus’s lead after his Wednesday morning interview on NBC’s “Today,” when he described the “wild accusations” as “phony baloney garbage” and “shameful.”
“The first time I saw it is when I sat down in my office and my staff printed it out for me last night,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a Trump ally.
Priebus had made a similar comment on “Today,” when he said he first saw it “when someone printed it off the BuzzFeed website.”’
Nunes said that he had not fully reviewed the 35 pages, but he cast some doubt on its reliability.
“It doesn’t look like a very good intelligence product to me, glancing at it,” he told reporters.
Nunes said his “next steps” would be “asking for all of the underlying data” behind broader intelligence reports he has seen and “combing through it.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, defended the intelligence community and federal law enforcement officials who have come under criticism from Trump and some allies.
King said he first read the news about the allegations regarding Trump late Tuesday after House votes.
“When I got back to my apartment, I read BuzzFeed, and the first thing I thought was, ‘This is the sort of thing that floats around all of the time on people in public life.’ Our intelligence community is constantly dealing with reports, tidbits from overseas agencies, reports from allies, forgeries, phony information,” King said. “So I don’t think the media should have published it since there is no indication that any of it is accurate, like most other rumors.”
Democrats treated the matter carefully Wednesday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to say whether she was briefed on the allegations as part of the congressional Gang of Eight leaders privy to highly classified intelligence updates. She said it was “unfortunate that uncorroborated information was released” on the matter.
She called on the intelligence community to release more about its assessment of ties between Trump and Russia and said she hopes there would be an investigation into those issues.
“The more you can declassify, the more truth gets out to the American people,” she said.
Pelosi mused: “I always wondered, what did Russia have on Donald Trump that Donald Trump would question our sanctions that we have imposed? This is essential to our national security, essential to NATO. What is it that he’s appointed a secretary of state that’s not only violated those sanctions but didn’t even think that they should maybe exist.”
Asked about the implications if the allegations are verified, she said, “I don’t want to go there.”
When asked Wednesday morning about the reports, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded, “I’m not commenting.” Speaking later on the Senate floor, Schumer said that “the reports of the past 24 hours are extremely troubling.”
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) openly worried that the revelations could be used as an “excuse to further undermine or weaken the credibility of our intelligence community.” He called for a “cautious, bipartisan independent” investigation to avoid that.
“If the outcome of this is a widening of the gap of trust between the intelligence community and the incoming administration and president, then Vladimir Putin will have gotten what he wanted,” Coons said.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the Gang of Eight, again called for the establishment of an independent commission or at least a congressional panel to investigate the allegations of hacking and influence by Russia in the U.S. political system.
Nunes dismissed those suggestions, as he has previously: “No, there’s not going to be any select committee. Why not? Because we have a committee that does the work.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), who helps lead the Senate Democrats’ messaging wing, said her party must be careful to avoid infusing the situation with politics. Stabenow encouraged investigators to “follow the facts” and said it was crucial that the allegations be corroborated or debunked. But she said the allegations could not be dismissed entirely at this point.
“This is a potential compromise to the American government in a way that is unprecedented,” she said.
Asked what the implications would be if the allegations are corroborated, Stabenow said, “We’ll see. It’s very serious. It’s way beyond politics.”
Karoun Demirjian, John Wagner, Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Greg Miller, Steven Mufson, Abby Phillip and David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.