By Scott Wong - 03-06-17 16:24 PM EST
President Trump over the weekend made the explosive claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign.
The reaction from most Republicans on Capitol Hill: a collective shrug.
Facing a make-or-break moment on ObamaCare this week, congressional Republicans are determined not to let the latest Trump Twitter tirade slow down or derail their top legislative priority: repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Both Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were all too happy to discuss their plans to gut ObamaCare but had no comment Monday on Trump's unsubstantiated spying allegations. With little fanfare, top House investigators said they'd simply fold Trump's new wiretap claims into their ongoing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
And rank-and-file Republicans writing a repeal bill insisted they wouldn't be distracted or thrown off message by Trump's comment of the day.
"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee that is playing a critical role in drafting the repeal legislation, told The Hill.
This week marks the culmination of years of work on a plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare, something that Trump and every Republican in Congress vowed to do on the campaign trail.
Top House Republicans plan to unveil the legislative text of the bill early this week. Then the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees will get to work, marking up the bill during public, televised hearings.
Last week proved how difficult it would be for GOP leaders to shepherd the final bill through both chambers of Congress. The chairmen of the conservative Republican Study Committee and far-right House Freedom Caucus vowed to oppose a leaked draft repeal-and-replace bill because of its inclusion of refundable tax credits.
And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite, led reporters last week on a scavenger hunt through the Capitol in search of the House leadership-backed legislation. The point of his highly publicized performance: to prove the bill is being written behind closed doors, out of view from the American public.
However, senior GOP aides pushed back against that narrative Monday, insisting that the relevant committees are crafting the bill, that Republicans are starting to unify around the plan, and that momentum is building for passage.
Mick Mulvaney, Trump's new director of the Office of Management and Budget and a Freedom Caucus co-founder, has been brought in to help ease concerns from his conservative allies. The former congressman led a large staff meeting at the White House on Friday that focused on identifying and resolving outstanding issues on repeal. A day later, Ryan, Mulvaney, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), and Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) joined a conference call to tie up any loose ends.
"We are now at the culmination of a years-long process to keep our promise to the American people," said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong, who declined to answer any questions about Trump's wiretap allegations.
A McConnell spokesman also had no comment on Trump's wiretap comments.
"We are laser-focused and won't be distracted by sideshows," added one GOP lawmaker close to leadership.
But a series of Trump sideshows have consumed Capitol Hill ever since he took the oath of office on Jan. 20. He called for a federal investigation into rampant voter fraud in the 2016 election, even as state election officials said no evidence existed.
Trump set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill and at airports around the country after ordering a temporary ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority nations without giving lawmakers a heads up. The unilateral action was blocked by a federal appeals court, causing the president to sign a new, more narrowly tailored travel ban on Monday.
Top Trump officials' communications with Russia have also dominated news cycles in recent weeks. Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, resigned after reports emerged that he misled Vice President Pence about discussions he had with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from any Department of Justice (DOJ) probe into Russia's election meddling following revelations of Sessions's own meeting with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The latest Trump tweet storm appeared to reflect the president's anger and frustration with Sessions's recusal. But it still came as a surprise to senior White House officials and congressional leaders.
Without offering any evidence, Trump tweeted early Saturday morning that Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower during the "very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"
"Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" Trump said in an earlier tweet.
An Obama spokesman denied Trump's allegation, and The New York Times reported that FBI Director James Comey had asked DOJ officials to publicly knock down Trump's allegation that Obama had ordered the wiretapping.
While most GOP leaders are doing their best to move past Trump's wiretap remark, other Republicans say they can't be ignored. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a frequent Trump critic, called the allegations "very serious" and demanded the administration share more information.
"We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the President's allegations demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots," Sasse said in a statement.
For lawmakers already probing Russian interference in the election, Trump's wiretap claim may add to their busy workload. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a former Trump campaign adviser, said over the weekend that his panel will "make inquiries" into whether the U.S. government was spying on any political party's campaign officials or surrogates.
If they find something, Nunes said, committee members will investigate further.
But Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), an Intelligence Committee member and the former Select Committee on Benghazi chairman, said it should be easy to discern whether the intelligence community was spying on Trump or any of his campaign officials.
"There is a paper trail. There is an application. There are warrants, all of which can be reviewed. And right now, the executive branch is controlled not by the Obama administration but by the Trump administration," Gowdy said during an appearance Monday on Fox News.
"So whatever information is out there - and there would be a paper trail - is now controlled by the executive branch run by Mr. Trump."
Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said he would let the Intelligence panel take the lead while his committee plays a supporting role. But in an interview Monday, he seemed to pour cold water on Trump's allegations.
"I'm going to keep my eyes wide open. You never know when you turn a corner what you may or may not see," Chaffetz said on "CBS This Morning." "But thus far I have not seen anything directly that would support what the president has said."