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Republicans Grapple With Political Fallout From Cohen Plea And Manafort Verdict


Republicans in Congress are sticking by President Trump after one of his former top associates was convicted yesterday while another pleaded guilty to several charges, saying in the process that Trump directed payments to two women before the 2016 election.

NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell has been talking with Republicans today, and she's here with us now. Hey, Kelsey.


CHANG: So what's been the immediate reaction from Republicans to yesterday's developments?

SNELL: Basically they were doing the same thing that they usually do when there's bad news about the president. They try to downplay it, and they try to move on. Nearly everyone I spoke with had some version of the same line. They all said that the charges against Cohen and Manafort didn't mean much, if anything, about the president. John Cornyn, a top Republican leader, told several of us who were standing around in the hallways today that the special counsel investigations always go down unrelated rabbit holes. This is how he put it.

JOHN CORNYN: Nothing that happened yesterday or to this point has indicated any evidence of collusion or any involvement in the campaign. Sure, the Russians did attempt to meddle in the campaign. That's a serious matter, something we need to protect against in the future. But this is not why Mueller was appointed special counsel.

SNELL: Now, that echoes what the White House is saying, right?

CHANG: Right.

SNELL: Republicans on the Hill are just kind of taking their lead. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked a slew of questions. And as you know, he doesn't always respond to us. But today he was completely silent.

CHANG: Interesting.

SNELL: Senators are getting the brunt of the questions here, it's important to remember, because they're the only ones that are here in Washington this week. McConnell canceled their regular August recess...

CHANG: Right.

SNELL: ...So they have to respond.

CHANG: So we just heard Cornyn mention the Mueller investigation. But what does all of this mean for the separate Senate Intelligence Committee investigation?

SNELL: Basically it means that the investigation continues as it was before.


SNELL: I caught up with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, and he said that he and his team aren't stopping their work. And he also doesn't often talk to reporters in the halls, but he was really well-prepared for the question when we caught up with him.

RICHARD BURR: Our investigation has nothing to do with criminal acts. And the actions that we've seen in the last 12 hours deal with charges or pleas. It doesn't change anything that we're doing.

SNELL: So he went on and kept talking and was saying that if anything, it means that they have new lines of questions and different access to witnesses that they didn't have before. And that's generally been the response of most of the people on the Hill. The probes into potential collusion between the president's campaign and Russia are still the focus of those investigations, and they do not plan to change that.

CHANG: Do Republicans seem to be worried that Manafort and Cohen could worsen their chances in the midterm election? I mean, we're only a few months away at this point.

SNELL: Oh, absolutely. Some people tried to downplay it, saying that voters have other things on their mind and they want to talk about the economy. But a lot of Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio and retiring Senator Bob Corker told me that it's hard to see how this doesn't play into the midterms. Graham was in a particularly blunt mood. He said it just adds to an existing narrative that top officials and people around the president are involved in what he calls bad things.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: We'll have our side of the story. But I don't think you have to be a political genius to understand stuff like this doesn't help.

SNELL: Right.

CHANG: No, it does not. So it sounds like they totally realize that this gives Democrats a lot of ammunition. How far are Democrats going to take this? I mean, are they calling for impeachment right now?

SNELL: Nope. Not any of the Democrats that I spoke to today would utter the word impeachment. They know it's a controversial idea, and it's likely to create huge backlash among independents. And that's the last thing they want. So people like Nancy Pelosi have made clear that impeachment should wait until the Mueller investigation concludes.

CHANG: That's NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.