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Special Counsel Documents Leave Republicans Answering For Trump


We're starting the program again today trying to understand the significance of the latest court filings in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russian attempts to influence U.S. elections. Yesterday, we looked into the legal questions. Today, we want to talk about the politics - particularly how Republicans are responding. As a reminder, late Friday, the special counsel released a court filing with new information about Russian outreach to the Trump campaign. Separately, federal prosecutors in New York alleged that candidate Trump, identified as Individual One, directed his former attorney to violate campaign finance law.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky played down the seriousness of that allegation. Here he is on NBC's "Meet The Press" this morning.


RAND PAUL: So it's just like a lot of other things that we've done in Washington. We've over-criminalized campaign finance.

MARTIN: Florida Senator Marco Rubio took a wait-and-see approach on CBS's "Face The Nation."


MARCO RUBIO: There are pleadings. There are cases. There are evidence. We're going to wait for all of it to be out there. And I would caution everyone to wait for all of it to be out there until you make judgment.

MARTIN: So those are some of the public assessments from GOP lawmakers. But we wondered what Republicans on Capitol Hill and the administration might be saying privately, so we've called Washington Post national political reporter Robert Costa.

Robert, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ROBERT COSTA: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So we just heard Senator Paul defend the president and Senator Rubio take a cautious approach. We were just wondering what you might be hearing when the cameras are off. What, if anything, is keeping GOP lawmakers up at night?

COSTA: Privately, Republicans are far less calm than they are on the Sunday television shows. In today's Washington Post, my colleague Phil Rucker and I detail our conversations over the past week with top Republicans in Congress, inside of the White House. They're very nervous that this is a White House that is not prepared for the coming political and legal storm.

You have the president's legal team and Rudy Giuliani out there not doing enough, they say, to help repair the party, to be at the barricades defending this president. They also don't feel like the GOP has a plan when it comes to dealing with the House Democrats, who will have subpoena power in January.

MARTIN: So some of the Republican lawmakers have criticized the president, but it's mainly those who are retiring, like Senator Flake and Senator Corker. So we've heard you tell us about their concerns, about their response to dealing with it. But what about on the merits itself? Are there any lines the president can't cross without risking the loss of Republican support?

COSTA: The lines that he cannot cross include a pardon for Paul Manafort, who has already been convicted of crimes by federal prosecutors. Republicans feel the president may believe Manafort is a victim. He keeps describing Manafort in tweets as a victim. But they say, you cannot pardon him, Mr. President, or else you risk losing your entire party. We can stand with you against Robert Mueller. You've eroded the institutional integrity of what he's doing with the special counsel. But, beyond that, we can't stand with you if you start to throw these pardons out there.

MARTIN: And so, finally, before we let you go, what are you hearing about the mood in the White House, the president's mood and that of his aides? We learned yesterday that Chief of Staff John Kelly will be leaving, but the president doesn't seem to have a replacement lined up yet. What are you hearing about all that?

COSTA: The latest news is that Nick Ayers, the vice president's chief of staff, has now bowed out of the process to be the replacement for John Kelly. It's open season tonight as I call my sources asking, who's going to be the next White House chief of staff? They think Mark Meadows, the congressman from North Carolina and top ally of President Trump, is now one of the frontrunners to be in that position - someone who could perhaps help the president navigate Congress next year in divided government.

But a lot of people - they don't really want this job. They think, who really can deal with Mueller and deal with Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House speaker, the likely speaker? It's a tough job - a lot of scrutiny. And any new chief of staff is likely going to have to hire a lawyer to help them make sure they can make it through the thicket of all of these issues.

MARTIN: That's Washington Post national political reporter Robert Costa.

Robert, thank you so much.

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