Some of President Donald Trump’s earliest and most vocal congressional supporters offered him political cover Tuesday, chalking up the first-month dismissal of his national security adviser as merely an inevitable early stumble.
GOP Rep. Chris Collins of New York, an early Trump supporter who was his transition team’s congressional liaison, was quick to protect the president’s flank after Michael Flynn resigned on Monday night. But few other Republican members flocked to television cameras on Trump’s behalf.
“I don’t believe anyone knew what Gen. Flynn was doing or directed him to do something relative to the discussion with the Russian ambassador,” Collins told CNN. “I believe that was Gen. Flynn’s decision to have the conversation he had.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump decided to ask for Flynn’s resignation Monday night after determining he could no longer trust his top security adviser after he misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about his talks with Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S. before the Trump administration took power on Jan. 20.
Those GOP Trump backers who were pressed by reporters to address the new administration’s first high-profile departure on Tuesday spoke in clipped sentences, calling for the White House and its critics to put Flynn’s firing behind them and move on to other matters.
Asked by Roll Call if the Flynn situation, which Spicer acknowledged the White House knew about by Jan. 26, led him to question Trump’s judgement, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., replied, “No. No.”
“He’s still less than a month in,” Hunter, an early Hill backer, said of the new president. “Especially with the way that Trump, I think, operates, it’s going to take a couple more weeks. I think they’re still finding out who they’ve got, and what these guys actually are going to work in this environment of governing.”
Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who met with Trump in early December in New York about a potential Cabinet position, chafed at the notion that the White House’s handling of the Flynn situation shows dysfunction.
“The administration is fine,” he said, moving toward a Capitol subway car amid a group of reporters. “These things happen. It’s unfortunate.”
Flynn misleading Pence and other senior administration officials and subsequently losing the president’s trust “has nothing to do with [Trump’s] judgement,” Perdue told Roll Call. As another reporter tried a new line of questioning about Flynn, Perdue eventually ended the impromptu gaggle, saying, “That’s all I have to say about it.”
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said the dismissal, on just the administration’s 25th day in office, shows Trump “demands” accountability from his aides.
“That comes from the business world,” Inhofe said, adding a moment later that “he’s doing a good job” at running his White House like his businesses -- just as he promised during the campaign.
“I think the president is really concerned that if someone doesn’t give full disclosure to their superiors, he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he said. “The best way to do that is to come to an agreement that he’s gone.”
Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., seemed to brush off the entire episode, pointing out that “Ronald Reagan had to clean out a few at the beginning.”
“He got rid of his national security adviser and secretary of State during his first year,” Shelby said, referring to Richard Allen and Alexander Haig, respectively. National Security Adviser Richard Allen resigned on Jan. 4, 1982, just shy of a year of Reagan being in office. Haig left June 25, 1982.
“It happens. You’ve got to have a shake up.” Flynn's departure at 24 days in is the shortest tenure for a national security adviser.
Most Republicans on Tuesday echoed House Deputy GOP Whip Tom Cole of Oklahoma in saying Flynn did the “right thing” by stepping down because “anytime you lose the confidence of your principals … you need to get out of the way.”
And, like Cole, they were eager to pin the blame firmly on the retired Army three-star general who was fired almost three years ago from his post as Defense Intelligence Agency chief.
“I have a high opinion of Gen. Flynn; he was a brilliant [military] intelligence officer,” Cole said. “But you have to level with the vice president and the administration when you’re asked something. Saying you forgot is not good enough in that position.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who was considered for secretary of State in Trump’s Cabinet, sidestepped a question about whether Trump’s judgement could be called into question after he hired Flynn despite some former national security officials raising red flags -- then kept him in such a key job for weeks after the Justice Department notified the White House of troublesome discussions he had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“I don’t know what he knew two weeks ago,” Corker said of Trump, quickly shifting the focus back to Flynn. “But I think, certainly, an element” of ongoing congressional probes of Russian efforts to influence November’s election “could be that maybe Gen. Flynn testifies in one of the hearings.”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., certainly was not among candidate Trump’s Hill supporters for most of the campaign. But since the election, Ryan has worked closely with the White House, with Trump even pledging publicly to help him finally turn his preferred policy prescriptions into law.
On Tuesday, Ryan joined in the political cover game, telling reporters that “the president made the right decision to ask for his resignation” because “you cannot have a national security advisor misleading the vice president.”
“The key is this: That as soon as this person lost the president’s trust, the president asked for his resignation and that was the right thing to do,” Ryan said.
Several early Republican Trump backers’ take on the situation were summed up by Hunter: “So this was, ‘Who gives me good military advice? And who do I trust? I’m going to go with that guy.’ I don’t think you’ll see this kind of thing with the confirmed Cabinet members.”
Rema Rahman, Niels Lesniewski and Megan Scully contributed to this report.