Top Senate Republicans tried to avoid questions about the legal woes ensnaring the Trump administration as they worked to keep the focus of a Monday news conference on the GOP agenda, specifically the confirmation of a batch of judicial nominees this week.
In one notable moment, Sen. Chuck Grassley literally squirmed out of the room just as reporters began asking questions about the legal problems.
“Anybody have any questions for Senator Grassley, or anybody else here, on this topic?” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked reporters, making clear he didn’t want questions about the indictments and guilty plea involving three of President Donald Trump’s campaign aides to dominate the news conference.
When reporters pressed to get on-camera comment about the legal problems facing Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, the usually accommodating Cornyn tried to deflect, saying the issue wasn’t in the Senate’s “wheelhouse.”
As multiple reporters shouted out, Grassley, who chairs the judiciary committee, which is investigating alleged Russian meddling in US elections, decided to slip out.
The lanky Iowa Republican tried to make a quick exit out a back door that was directly behind the podium. The problem was that several American flags on stands were set up behind the participants and blocked the large wooden door he needed to open to leave the room. So instead of quietly slipping away, he opened the door, banging into it as he did, and then tried to squeeze awkwardly out between the flags and the door, nearly knocking over several flags as he loudly departed.
Reporters called out to Grassley, but the agile 84-year-old got away, leaving Cornyn at the podium struggling to regain control of the room.
“If you will all hold on a second,” Cornyn asked the reporters. “The special counsel is appointed by the Department of Justice and that’s the person you need to ask the questions to.”
Grassley’s had briefly spoken to CNN reporters off camera earlier in the day when he also declined to comment on the specific ramifications of the legal actions, besides advising the President to “to let the special counsel do his work.”
His office later — but before the news conference — released a statement on the indictment.
“As always, it’s important to let our legal system run its course,” Grassley said in a statement. “While we don’t have any more information regarding the current status of the special counsel’s investigation other than what has already been made public, it’s good to see the Justice Department taking seriously its responsibility to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act. I’ve been raising concerns about lackluster enforcement of this foreign influence disclosure law for years now, regardless of administration or political party.”
At the news conference, Cornyn was forced to take the podium after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ducked out of the news conference before the question-and-answer portion began. A McConnell aide said that leaving had been the leader’s plan all along and that he would hold another news conference Tuesday after the weekly GOP policy lunch.
His plea seemed to fit an ongoing narrative on Capitol Hill since Trump became President. The media are often more focused on getting lawmaker’s reactions to Trump’s controversial tweets and unorthodox governing style than on the many legislative goals congressional Republicans are trying to achieve.
Cornyn eventually gave in to reporters’ demands and answered a few questions on the special counsel probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion. He said he didn’t think the three aides’ legal problems would prevent Trump from doing his job or prevent Congress from passing tax reform.
“In terms of Congress being able to do our job, I believe the investigations into Russian active measures are continuing apace,” Cornyn said. “I don’t see how the indictment changes the ability of the President to do his job. There is a process for this to go forward, and I trust it will happen.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include additional comment from Grassley.