Senator Lindsey Graham was holding court in the basement of the Capitol building, happy to share his thoughts on the Republican healthcare plan, when reporters’ phones lit up.
“Read and respond to this story,” a reporter asked, holding up his phone. “It just published.” The South Carolina Republican squinted and cast his eyes over the headline of a New York Times story: “Comey memo says Trump asked him to end Flynn investigation”.
The revelation on Tuesday night that Donald Trump asked James Comey, the FBI director who he fired last week, to stop investigating the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was the second bombshell in less than 24 hours. For Republicans, who find themselves increasingly stunned by the near-daily scandals emerging from the White House, the news set off a frenzy on Capitol Hill.
Having come so close to reaching the end of the day without a new controversy, Republicans bobbed and weaved through a crowd of journalists in an effort to dodge the inevitable tidal wave of questions. “Run,” a senator directed his aide, noticing the door of a Capitol subway car was still open. The men caught the train just in time.
On the other side of the building, reporters circled the Virginia congressman Dave Brat in the elevator bank. Was he concerned about the string of controversies? “I’ve been more concerned in the past with the press just reporting the news in detail,” he said.
The elevator started to emit a loud buzz as its doors were held open too long. “Come in, come in,” Brat beckoned to the Freedom Caucus chairman, Mark Meadows, who had just wriggled away from a scrum.
Another group of journalists trailing Steve Scalise, the Republican majority whip from Louisiana, turned a staircase corner quickly and almost flattened a bewildered troop of Boy Scouts on an educational tour.
Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, squeezed past journalists, heading for the refuge of the elevator, ignoring a shouted question about the breaking story. “Almost sounds like fake news,” he said, dramatically, and jammed the button for the doors to close.
Other lawmakers, however, were more direct with reporters. One congressman allegedly gave the middle finger to a Politico reporter who asked for his reaction. (He denied it and simply said: “There’s limited time to talk when we’re rushing to vote.”) A Utah Republican removed any pretense in his reply to a Huffington Post reporter: “OK, what non-answer do you want me to give you?”
The chaotic scene has been the new normal on Capitol Hill for some time. News of the Comey memo came a week after Trump fired Comey and just a day after it was reported that Trump had revealed highly classified intelligence information during an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials.
During the day on Tuesday, hours before the Comey memos were reported, Republicans pleaded for “less drama” from the White House. By Tuesday night, it was clear that some had reached a breaking point with the president.
Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who earlier this month helped the House pass a healthcare plan under pressure from the White House, said the drama had taken a toll. “This weekly scandal – weekly controversy – is unhealthy for the country, it’s a major distraction for the Congress, and it’s just bad for the psyche of every American.”