WASHINGTON — Michael Cohen’s guilty plea implicating President Donald Trump in a crime reverberated across the political landscape Wednesday, with Republicans rejecting talk of impeachment without evidence of Russian collusion. Democrats steered clear of the word, too, and zeroed in instead on what they called a “cesspool” of corruption engulfing the White House.
The one-two punch ahead of the midterm elections — the plea from former Trump lawyer Cohen and the fraud conviction of one-time campaign chairman Paul Manafort — is presenting the biggest loyalty test yet for Republicans who have been reluctant to criticize the president. Democrats face their own challenge in trying to tamp down calls for impeachment for fear that will galvanize GOP voters in November.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brushed past reporters Wednesday without answering questions about Cohen or the possibility that the lawyer’s accusations about an illegal campaign cover-up are grounds for impeachment proceedings against Trump. GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is away from Washington, had no direct response either.
Trump’s strongest supporters are taking the view that, absent evidence of collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 election, there is just no case for impeachment.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a Trump confidant, shrugged off the legal developments.
“Anything short of the campaign actually conspiring with Russia to try to impact the election, anything short of that will just be background noise,” Falwell said.
Doug Deason, a Texas-based donor and major Trump supporter, said: “In no way, shape or form did we think we were hiring St. Trump to repair the morals of the country.”
Even those few Republicans who have been willing to speak out about Trump are treading carefully in the wake of Cohen’s guilty plea.
“I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything like I’ve witnessed over the last year and a half. Probably, the American people haven’t in modern times,” said retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. But he stopped short of passing further judgment on the Cohen case.
“I’m sure there’s going to be other revelations that come up,” he said, “and I think we ought to just let the process work.”
Cohen on Tuesday said Trump directed a hush-money scheme before the 2016 election to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, both of whom said they had sexual relationships with Trump. Trump has accused Cohen of making up “stories in order to get a ‘deal'” from federal prosecutors.
The president defended the hush-money payments Wednesday, saying, incorrectly, that the effort outlined in Cohen’s guilty plea wasn’t “even a campaign violation.” Trump told Fox News in an interview set to air Thursday that the payments “didn’t come out of the campaign, and that’s big.”
The accusation from Cohen has inflamed public debate about impeachment. Democratic leaders have sought to downplay the possibility of impeachment ahead of the midterm elections, fearing overreach that could cause Republicans to rally around the president.
Democratic donor Tom Steyer’s Twitter feed Wednesday called for others to join his campaign to impeach the president. “How much more corruption do we need to see?” he tweeted.
Ben Wikler, Washington director for the liberal advocacy group MoveOn, said he wants Democrats in Congress to join organizations like his that have been demanding impeachment for several weeks.
“Now that Trump’s personal lawyer has implicated him in a crime, not supporting impeachment feels like a dodge,” Wikler said. “Impeachment doesn’t have to be the core of your message to the electorate, but it’s not something you can bury your head in the sand and ignore.”
But Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi said that unless other information emerges, impeaching Trump is “not a priority” for Democrats if they regain control of the House this fall. Pelosi said she prefers to see Democrats work to ensure special counsel Robert Mueller can finish his investigation.
“If and when the information emerges about that, we’ll see,” Pelosi said Tuesday as the news about Cohen was unfolding.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer used the developments to press the Democrats’ case against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, saying Republicans should hit “pause” on their push toward confirmation.
He expressed concern about Kavanaugh’s unwillingness to indict a sitting president, as is Justice Department policy, or subpoena a president to testify. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing is set for Sept. 4.
“This Republican Congress has done almost nothing to check this president,” Schumer said. “We cannot allow the Supreme Court to be captured as well.”
The House is on summer break for campaign season. The Senate is in session, trying to wrap up a rare August work period that GOP leaders had hoped would be invigorating. Instead, senators at the Capitol are finding themselves facing questions they often have no answers for.
Some Republican strategists are privately worried about the party’s prospects in November because of the scandals. Democrats see a similar opening in what Schumer has called “a cesspool around this president.”
“I think we’re beyond the tip of the iceberg. We’re in the middle of the iceberg right now, given how many people so close to the president are on their way to jail,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
“My hope is that Republicans don’t retreat into a corner. This is a moment where the future of the presidency is at stake. This isn’t about politics or point-scoring, so I’ll take my time to come to a conclusion. But I hope Republicans will also be willing to look at the facts and come to a non-political conclusion that’s best for the country.”
Associated Press writers and reporters Dustin Weaver and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.