Several Republican senators are questioning the timing of President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. But even as the issue emerges as a potential distraction from the GOP's legislative agenda, most are dismissing Democratic calls for a special counsel, and their hand-wringing looks unlikely to lead to any concrete action.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved swiftly to reject Democrats' demands for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election and ties with the Trump campaign. Such an appointment "could only serve to impede the current work being done" by the Senate intelligence committee and the FBI itself, McConnell said.
Democrats argued that an independent, outside inquiry led by a special prosecutor was a necessary next step, given Trump's decision to oust Comey in the midst of the FBI's Russia investigation. The firing came not long after Comey had requested additional resources for the investigation, according to U.S. officials, although the Justice Department disputed that.
"All we are seeking is some assurance that the subject of this investigation is not able to influence it or, God forbid, quash it," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
But Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., insisted that his panel has "got the jurisdictional responsibility to investigate this. We are going to do that."
"I think this made our task a little more difficult but it didn't make it impossible so we'll continue," Burr added of the Comey firing. "I'm very confident we can get to the bottom of it, but we've got to be given the time and access to interview the right people." Burr said the timing and rationale for Comey's firing "doesn't make sense to me."
For Republicans who have generally avoided criticizing Trump throughout various controversies, the expressions of concern coming from well over a dozen Senate Republicans were noteworthy. Rank-and-file lawmakers and committee chairs alike said the timing was questionable and the administration must give an accounting of what occurred. Yet Republicans did not appear poised to take any particular action to force the issue.
"While this was ultimately a judgment call by the president, I think there are questions about timing that the administration and Justice Department are going to need to answer in the days ahead," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican.
The issue also threatened to consume time Republicans would prefer to devote to their efforts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's health law. Instead a contentious fight looms over confirming whomever Trump nominates to replace Comey, although it will take only a simple majority in the 100-member Senate and therefore no Democratic votes will be needed.
The intelligence committee announced it had invited Comey to appear next week, ensuring continued focus on the FBI and Russia instead of health care and taxes.
The administration's stated reason for the firing was that Trump had lost confidence in Comey, and administration officials pointed to a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein harshly criticizing Comey's leadership of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. White House officials noted that Democrats themselves had voiced complaints about Comey or called for his ouster, an argument McConnell and some other Republicans echoed.
Democrats, with little recourse in the minority, cast about for tactics to draw attention to their demand for a special prosecutor or keep up pressure on Republicans. They called a special caucus meeting, convened as a group on the Senate floor, and threatened to use procedural tactics to slow Senate business to a crawl.
"I think the Democrats are engaged in a partisan fishing expedition," complained Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
But others voiced concerns for the administration and the path ahead.
"I think the White House, after multiple conversations with many people over the last 12-14 hours, understands that they've created a really difficult situation for themselves," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "And to move beyond this in a way that gives the American people faith, and Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate faith in future efforts, is going to be a really tough and narrow path for them to follow."
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor and Richard Lardner contributed.