Congressional Republicans Are Quietly Shifting on Trump

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s press conference showed that the GOP is slowly changing its tune on the president.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Over the last 24 hours, journalists have hunted down Republican members of Congress in search of quotes that include words like “Watergate,” “impeachment,” and “obstruction of justice?” And they’ve elicited a few.

But the shift occurring within the congressional GOP is mostly manifesting itself in quieter ways. Take House Speaker Paul Ryan’s comments on Wednesday morning. First, consider what Ryan did not say. He didn’t attack former FBI Director James Comey. When Trump fired Comey a week ago, Ryan endorsed his actions, saying the former FBI Director “had just basically lost the confidence of a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats based upon his conduct.”

Ryan did not repeat those criticisms on Wednesday, a day after the New York Times reported that contemporaneous notes from Comey portray  Trump privately urging Comey to end the criminal investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. And while he mentioned that members of Congress would likely ask Comey why he didn’t “take action at the time” when Trump allegedly pressured him to close the Flynn investigation, Ryan didn’t emphasize the point. Second, he didn’t attack the media. He said vaguely “there are some people out there who want to harm the president.” But he didn’t buttress the central talking point of Trump defenders: that the real scandal is the alliance between Democrats, the “deep state” and the liberal media to bring down a president they hate.

Even more importantly, Ryan endorsed House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Jason Chaffetz’s demand that Comey hand over documents detailing Trump’s alleged interference. That may not seem significant. But a source close to the congressional GOP tells me that, in backing Chaffetz, Ryan defied the White House, which would have preferred him to say that he lets committee chairmen make their own judgments.

Many in Ryan’s caucus would have preferred him to say that too. Given how gerrymandered congressional districts are, most Republican House members represent territory where Trump remains popular, at least among the GOP activists with whom they frequently interact. According to the source, some House Republicans appreciate it when Ryan distances himself from Trump because it gives them cover. But a larger number don’t. They spend their days fleeing local journalists who want them to comment on every Trump outburst. When Ryan criticizes Trump, even mildly, that gives the local media a hook, and makes it harder for them to stay silent.

Ryan has now legitimized Chaffetz’s investigation. He’s solidified the new congressional GOP line, which is not “this is a witch-hunt and a diversion,” but “let’s get all the facts.” And from John McCain to writers at National Review, more and more conservatives are saying that if the facts reported by the New York Times over the last few days are true, Donald Trump should lose his job.

This morning, Ryan took the first steps toward being able to one day say that too.