Georgia Republicans struggled to defend President Trump amid new questions Wednesday about whether he attempted to shut down a federal investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
The revelation that then-FBI Director Jim Comey wrote in a February memo that Trump asked him to end a probe into Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, sent Republicans scrambling to respond to another major Trump controversy.
And the late Wednesday announcement that the Justice Department tapped former FBI chief Robert Mueller to oversee the investigation threw another wrinkle into the response.
The continuing drama put additional pressure on Trump’s staunchest advocates in the Georgia GOP. And it could further roil the nationally-watched race for Georgia’s 6th District, a conservative-leaning stretch of northern Atlanta that has become unexpectedly competitive.
On Capitol Hill, members of Georgia’s GOP delegation questioned the veracity of the reports. U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk said “no one has seen the memo except the news media – which is kind of interesting” and said the spotlight should instead be on the source of leaks emanating from the White House.
“The real issue we have is we have major leaks that, in my opinion, could be considered treason,” said Loudermilk, a second-term Republican from Cassville.
And U.S. Sen. David Perdue, arguably Trump’s highest profile advocate in Georgia, said he is “anxious” to move beyond the controversy to tackle the GOP’s top agenda items.
“Knowing President Trump the way I know him, and seeing how he has operated over the last four months, it would be hard for me to believe that this will be substantiated,” Perdue said in a statement released by his office. “So we will see how it turns out.”
‘Follow the facts’
Those statements came as Congressional leaders signaled the scrutiny is far from over. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he has full confidence in the president but that lawmakers must “follow the facts wherever they lead.”
“We need the facts. It is obvious there are some people out there who want to harm the president,” said Ryan. “But we have an obligation to carry out our oversight regardless of which party is in the White House.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee struck a similar line by inviting Comey to testify.
The reports of Comey’s memo emerged a day after another damaging revelation that rocked Trump’s White House. The Washington Post reported on Monday that Trump turned over sensitive classified information to Russian officials.
Trump’s administration has denied the reports about the memo and has said he revealed nothing inappropriate to the Russians. Spokesman Sean Spicer said the leaked memo is “not an accurate representation of that meeting.” And Trump said he was being unfairly attacked by a resentful media.
“No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he told U.S. Coast Guard graduates at their commencement ceremony. “You can’t let them get you down. You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams.”
‘Shiny object of the day’
Georgia Democrats sought to seize on the barrage of news to embarrass Perdue and fellow GOP U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson with a reminder that both had co-sponsored legislation that would have sanctioned anyone who exercised “extreme carelessness” in handling confidential information.
The measure, which never gained traction, was a political maneuver introduced in July 2016 by Republicans frustrated that Democrat Hillary Clinton was not indicted for her handling of classified material on a personal email server while she was U.S. secretary of state.
In a statement, Democratic Party of Georgia head DuBose Porter said Trump has “undermined the trust of our allies and imperiled our national security” and questioned whether the two incumbents would hold Trump to the same standard.
Isakson’s office said it would not comment on either of the developments until “all the facts” come out. And Perdue called the uproar about Trump’s sharing of confidential information the “shiny object of the day for the media and Washington.”
In Georgia’s hotly-contested 6th District race, neither candidate was quick to opine on the latest reports about the White House.
Republican Karen Handel’s campaign referred to a week-old statement that made no mention of the calls by Democrats, and a few Republicans, for an independent investigation. In those remarks, Handel said Comey had squandered the trust of the American people and that his ouster was “probably overdue.” She also declined comment on Trump’s sharing of classified information.
Democrat Jon Ossoff, her opponent in the June 20 runoff, also had no additional comment on the developments. He had called last week for a special prosecutor to “investigate Russian interference” in the wake of Trump’s surprise move to fire Comey.
Neither candidate had an immediate response to the news of Mueller’s appointment.
In Washington, Georgia Republicans pleaded for patience as they hunkered down for what could be a lengthy investigation. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said lawmakers must “see the actual paperwork” of Comey’s memo.
“There’s a lot of noise out there about this administration. They want to take down this administration,” said Collins. “These are valid issues that need to be discussed. And we will look at them and go where it leads.”
Cox Media Group correspondent Jamie Dupree contributed to this report.