Russia and Comey controversies delay action items in Washington

Tense talk around Russia hacking and James Comey's firing are diverting attention from important GOP agenda items, and could effect future initiatives by President Trump.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
US President Donald Trump sits during a meeting with Republican Congressional leadership at the White House in Washington, June 6, 2017. While activity hasn't ground to a complete halt, the insights of President Trump’s ties with Russia and the Comey controversy have had a significant damping effect on the White House’s productivity.

You've probably heard all about what's happening in Washington. This is a story about what isn't.

The rapid-fire revelations about the Trump campaign and its Russia connections that are heating up this city are having a chilling effect in plenty of other ways.

There are bills that have been pushed to the back burner. Diplomatic initiatives that aren't fully initiating. Interest groups that can't stir up much interest. Appointees that haven't been appointed.

"It reminds me very much of the Monica Lewinsky days, when things just slowed to a crawl," says Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who worked for then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich when President Bill Clinton was under investigation for his affair with an intern in the late 1990s. "Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are consumed by it and there seems to be little appetite for getting into the nitty gritty of other things."

Public relations executive Jamie Horwitz, who leads the team that schedules National Press Club events, emails that "nothing, NOTHING of any importance" is happening at the press club this week. By contrast, the organization's schedule for June 2016, when reporters were out covering campaigns and former President Barack Obama was almost out the door, still featured plenty of press conferences, breakfasts, luncheons and newsmaker events.

Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, would like to see the nation more focused on voter suppression laws she says are being adopted around the country, but "attention spans for these critical issues are short" with so much interest focused on the Russia matter.

"It does feel like the Comey controversy is sucking up a lot of the air," Ms. Clarke said, referring to James Comey, the fired FBI chief.

Even Marc Short, President Trump's legislative affairs director, this week acknowledged that all of the focus on the Russia investigations "detracts from our legislative agenda. It detracts from what we're trying to deliver."

To be sure, the city has not ground to a halt.

Mr. Trump himself made a point of agreeing to address religious conservatives at the same time that Mr. Comey will be testifying before Congress on Thursday. And the White House is gamely attempting to keep the focus this week on proposed infrastructure improvements.

On Capitol Hill, senators are writing their version of legislation to replace the Obama administration's health-care law, which stalled out once before. And the full Senate and House are scheduled to be tackling Iran sanctions and financial regulations when Comey is testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But the mushrooming Russia investigation throws a long shadow.

Former Oklahoma congressman Mickey Edwards said the drumbeat of revelations about the Trump campaign's connections to Russia makes even Republican legislators less likely to deliver full-throated support to Trump initiatives such as health care.

"Everybody's going to be a little skittish about casting votes to support a Trump agenda when you don't know what's the next shoe that's going to drop," says Mr. Edwards, who spent 16 years in the House from 1977 to 1992 and served in the GOP leadership.

And with Trump running far behind on making appointments, Edwards adds, the Russia investigations put even more pressure on the "small group of people" who are running his administration.

"It's like a little family gathering trying to run a country," he says. "They don't have the capacity even without the Russia investigation. And with Russia, they're totally diverted."

On Capitol Hill, a handful of congressional committees are directly involved in the Russia question. And beyond that, "everybody's interested in it from a gossip standpoint," says Mr. Galen.

With the Senate and House intelligence committees at the center of the Trump-Russia vortex, legislation to renew and revise a key section of the foreign intelligence surveillance law that allows the US to collect certain communications on the internet has been forced to compete for attention with the Russia matters.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D), of Virginia, said that after the House passed its version of health legislation, he returned to Washington the following Monday psyched for the Senate to tackle the issue.

"And then Tuesday, Comey got fired," Senator Kaine said. "And since then, aside from Republicans working behind closed doors to find health care solutions without Democratic participation, we haven't had hearings on health care. We haven't had witnesses ... It does divert attention."

At the State Department, the constant questions about potential collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia have added another layer of difficulty to the administration's efforts to improve relations with the former cold war foe.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking during a visit to New Zealand, said Tuesday that Trump wants him to keep what's happening "in the political realm" from impeding efforts to rebuild US relations with Russia. But he acknowledged that "our relationships with Russia are at a very low point and they've been deteriorating."

Sen. John McCain (R), of Arizona, recently lamented that the Russia probe is "a challenge to Washington, D.C., the way we do business, a challenge to bipartisanship and a challenge to the effectiveness of this newly elected president." And Sen. Marco Rubio (R), of Florida, warned that all the leaks related to Russia were making it hard for people within the executive branch to trust one another "when you are in a room and you don't know where these notes or where these comments are going to wind up in the newspaper in 48 hours."

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Clinton administration, cautions against blaming all of Trump's problems on the Russia probes when there is plenty of "independent dysfunction in the White House."

"It wasn't going to be so easy to get any of this done even without the distraction of the Russia investigation," he says.

"I don't think he's been in a commanding position from day one," Mr. Galston adds. "He's taken a bad hand and played it very badly into an even worse hand."

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