With the Trump administration threatened by Trump’s son admission Tuesday to meeting with a Russian attorney who promised to provide Kremlin-backed assistance for his father’s campaign, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to restore a little bit of order to his corner of Washington.
After weeks of haggling over an effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and a failed attempt to force a vote prior to the July 4 recess, McConnell took the extraordinary step of announcing that the Senate would remain in session through the first two weeks in August, foregoing its annual month-long recess for the first time in decades.
The plan, the Kentucky senator promised, is to finish with the Senate version of ACA repeal by next week as part of a budget reconciliation package, and to move on to a litany of other issues that, while pressing, have found little traction on Capitol Hill as the health care fight and the various dramas attached to the Trump administration have taken up most of lawmakers’ time.
He said that the Senate GOP would use the first two weeks of August to work on a defense spending bill, pass a plan to update the structure of Food and Drug Administration user fees, pass a debt ceiling increase, and approve many of the dozens of executive branch nominees who have not yet received a vote.
“We’re going to do health care next week, and in the reconciliation process, of course, you get to the end,” McConnell said in a press conference in the Capitol. “It can sometimes be as a result of exhaustion, but you can get to an end. And then we’re going to turn to other issues...among them the Defense Authorization, FDA user bill -- a must-pass bill to fund the FDA -- we have to do a debt ceiling increase.”
He added, “We intend to fully utilize those first two weeks in August.”
The move felt almost like an effort to separate the Senate from an increasingly dysfunctional White House. Members of the president’s inner circle have been leaking damaging information about one another to the media on a nearly daily basis, even as former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor in charge of looking into the Trump campaign’s Russian ties, assembles a team of high-powered investigators.
But even as he promised that the Senate would get down to the serious business of passing legislation and confirming presidential nominees over the next month, McConnell couldn’t really escape the uproar over Donald Trump Jr.’s admission that while working as a senior member of his father’s campaign in June 2016, he agreed to a meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya.
The meeting was proposed by Rob Goldstone, an acquaintance of Trump’s who has connections to at least one Russian oligarch closely tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Significantly, in an email offering the meeting, Goldstone indicated that Veselnitskaya would provide information damaging to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and that what she would deliver was “very high level and sensitive information” that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. replied.
When he took questions at his press conference, McConnell was asked three times about the Trump Jr. story, with reporters pointing out that the revelation of a meeting with an ostensible Kremlin source took place after months of denials by the president that he or any of his campaign staff had even met with, much less colluded with, the Russian government.
Asked repeatedly if the news affected his ability to trust the Trump administration, McConnell repeatedly refused to answer the question, meeting it with an uncomfortable smile each time and referring to an ongoing investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee that, he repeated, would “get to the bottom” of the issue.
Whether McConnell will be able to create the impression of a productive Senate operating separately and apart from a White House that appears to be coming apart at the seams is, at this point, an open question.
“It’s going to be some time before much of this unravels, and I think frankly we are moving into truly uncharted territory here,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “One of the things I’ve said before, what happens if Trump fires Mueller and everybody on the [investigative team] and then pardons everybody? Which is, I think, a plausible outcome as this moves along and the noose tightens on everybody.”
Ornstein, a long-time critic of the Republican leadership, said it was “shameful” how some congressional Republican overseers have downplayed the mushrooming scandal and investigation surrounding Trump and his campaign’s dealings with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“At what point – if any – does a Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell-led Congress decide this is far enough?” he added. “And the answer may be never.”
Jim Manley, the one-time press secretary to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said that “If McConnell follows through on this threat, this would be one of the longest periods that the Senate has been in session in August for quite a long time.”
He said that meeting in August is highly rare because the fierce desire of members to return home for August usually trumps any other considerations.
“I assume what he’s trying to get at is trying to clear the debt limit out of the way before they hit the ceiling in September or so, and it only gets uglier in September when it’s going to get tied in with budget-related issues, including the demand by some Republicans to cut entitlement spending, which will never get through the Senate,” he said.
Republican pollster and political adviser Whit Ayres cautioned against making too much of McConnell’s decision to keep the Senate in session for part of August. “The Senate is facing the reality of the difficulty of building a consensus around an alternate health care plan,” he said in an interview. “That’s all, and Sen. McConnell is committing the Senate to do whatever they possibly can to try to make things happen – which is what the American people want.”
“The Donald Trump Jr. email is just another in what has become a long series of stories around the whole Russian investigation,” he said. “It’s clearly the first link to somebody who may be connected to the Kremlin, but a lot of what you make of that story depends on where you started when you first read it. I think the people who are supportive of the president will believe a fairly innocent explanation that he really didn’t know anything about this woman and she ended up with no critical information. The people who are predisposed to be critical will think the worst.”
Asked if the Trump administration’s defense of Trump Jr. made sense to him, Ayres replied: “Nothing makes sense to me anymore, but it’s par for the course in our current environment.”