Trump’s Shadow Looms Large on Capitol Hill

With the impeachment inquiry and trial of President Trump in the rear view mirror, it’s back to business as usual on Capitol Hill. That means the House passing Democratic-crafted bills that will go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate while the upper chamber continues to approve Trump-nominated judges but steering clear of much else.

But congressional lawmakers just can’t escape the Trump Show, no matter how much they want to (and they desperately do, both Democrats and Republicans).

Two controversial post-impeachment moves by President Trump rattled Capitol Hill this week: His dismissal of two top government officials who testified in the House’s impeachment inquiry, and the Justice Department’s abrupt reversal of a sentencing recommendation for long-time Trump ally Roger Stone after the president publicly complained it was too harsh. The moves forced Republicans to awkwardly respond to press questions while handing Democrats ammunition to accuse Trump of going rogue.

Critics say Trump’s decision to oust Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated soldier and national security aide, and Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, was nothing more than payback for two officials who played a central role in the Democrats’ impeachment case.

It was “a clear and obvious act of retaliation… against witnesses who told the truth under oath,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “How vindictive, how petty, how nasty.”

But some staunch Trump supporters on Capitol Hill said the president was well within his right to oust officials he deems disloyal.

“It amazes me the lack of empathy, at least on one side of the (partisan) aisle, for a president who doesn’t know who to trust,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI.) “And from my standpoint, you sure can’t trust Vindman inside the administration. I’m actually surprised the president took that long” to dismiss him.

Not all Republicans shared Johnson’s view.

“While I certainly recognize that the president has the right to choose his own staff and his own ambassadors, I’m concerned about what appears to be retaliation against the individuals who’ve been removed,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who voted last week to acquit the president in the Senate’s impeachment trial.

Collins said that when she learned the president was going to remove Vindman and Sondland from their posts, she called the White House “to try to prevent the action.”

Trump’s handling of the Stone case presented Republicans with an equally tricky messaging challenge, though most tried to avoid directly confronting the president on the issue. Some shrugged it off. Others, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), simply refused to answer questions about the Stone situation.

Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has been hammered by Trump and the conservative media for his vote to convict the president, was wary about weighing in.

“I’m not going to comment on the president’s tweets,” Romney said. “If I commented on all the tweets that I disagreed with, it would be a full-time job.”

The Utah senator did add, however, that while he hopes the president didn’t try to influence the Justice Department’s decision regarding Stone, “the appearance (of influence) is unfortunate.”

As if things couldn’t get any tenser at the Capitol, a pair of Senate Republican chairmen are steaming ahead with investigations related to the Bidens and Ukraine. 

Johnson, who heads the Homeland Security Committee, and Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have ramped up their requests for documents and interviews related to work done by former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter for Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company.

Johnson told reporters that he’s not launching a politically driven witch hunt against the Bidens.

“What I’ve seen in the press is like, ‘Oh, now all of a sudden we’re targeting the Bidens,’” the Wisconsinite said. “From my standpoint, I’m not. This is just part and parcel of all this oversight that I want to conclude so the American people understand what happened.”

“I have so many unanswered questions… From my standpoint this is a very even-handed approach.”

All in all, another typical week on Capitol Hill.

Heard on the Hill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on post-impeachment reflections:

“The Senate did its job. We protected the long-term future of our Republic. We kept the temporary fires of factionalism from burning through to the bedrock of our institutions.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on the current field of Democratic presidential candidates:

“I think that no matter what, we’re going to have to unify under the nominee. There will always be concerns about party unity, no matter who it is…  There is no one candidate that is going to defeat Donald Trump. It needs to be a movement of Americans and everyone coming together.”