GOP congressman says it’s ‘too soon’ for an impeachment inquiry, but Cohen plea and Manafort conviction should worry Trump allies

Key Points
  • Republican Rep. Tom Cole says Michael Cohen's plea and Paul Manafort's conviction weaken the Republican campaign to keep control of Congress.
  • If special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation reveals something "clear and convincing and impeachable," Cole says he believes even a GOP Congress would act to cut Trump's presidency short.
  • Tuesday's twin legal developments provide Mueller's investigation with additional insulation from efforts by Trump allies to shut down the probe.
Rep. Tom Cole (L) (R-OK) looks on during a House Budget Committee markup of the Republican health care bill on Capitol Hill on March 16, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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The legal bombshells that exploded around President Donald Trump on Tuesday sent most congressional Republicans diving for cover. Rep. Tom Cole isn't one of them.

The Oklahoma conservative, in a Wednesday interview, didn't hide his alarm over the eight felony convictions of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and eight felony guilty pleas by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. He warned his party against retreating into "a fantasy world" that assumes Trump's predicament is not both disturbing and hazardous for the GOP.

The allegation that Trump ordered crimes to which Cohen has pleaded guilty is "potentially very dangerous," the eight-term lawmaker said. Taken together, he added, the Manafort and Cohen cases weaken the Republican campaign to keep control of Congress so long as Democrats don't overplay their hand with a rush toward impeachment.

And as Robert Mueller's Russia investigation continues, Cole didn't rule out even a GOP Congress acting to cut Trump's presidency short.

"If something comes out that is clear and convincing and impeachable, I think members will act," Cole said. He called it "too soon" for a congressional impeachment inquiry, though "I'll leave that to the Judiciary Committee."

How to impeach the President of the United States

Cole's words represent a red flag for fellow Republicans. A former chair of the Oklahoma GOP, chief of staff for the national party and head of the House campaign committee, he is among the most politically savvy members of the Republican caucus.

The most immediate consequence of Tuesday's legal developments, he said, is provide Mueller with additional insulation from Trump allies seeking to shut down his investigation. Though the Manafort charges didn't concern Russian meddling, he explained, the guilty verdicts mean "you can't dismiss it as a witch hunt."

"I don't know what it is," Cole said of the special counsel probe. "Yesterday was a pretty sobering day. The Mueller probe needs to be allowed to proceed."

Cole said neither Manafort's convictions nor Cohen's allegations by themselves would be enough to make Republicans turn against Trump. But he acknowledged prosecutors may have other evidence to back up Cohen's claims, and that Mueller may have unrevealed evidence about other crimes, including crimes involving Russia.

"I'm disturbed at what I see," Cole continued. "I've heard some on our side say this will help Republicans rile up our base. That, to me, is laughable."

Cole faces no November jeopardy himself. He's already been renominated in an overwhelmingly Republican district west of Oklahoma City.

But he fears that uncertainty about what Mueller will uncover represents a "sword of Damocles" over Republicans in more competitive districts. And though both the GOP leadership and rank and file have remained steadfast behind Trump, he offered the example of Richard Nixon as evidence of how political winds can change.

During the Watergate scandal, Nixon's allies on Capitol Hill stood by him months after majority Democrats initiated an impeachment inquiry. But that wall of protection collapsed, triggering his resignation, after the Supreme Court forced the release of White House tape recordings that irrefutably showed Nixon's participation in the Watergate cover-up.

"There wasn't any resistance once the tapes were out," recalled Cole, who that year was finishing graduate school.

Cole would hardly relish the constitutional crisis that a presidential impeachment attempt would represent. He noted the strong impulse among lawmakers to "give the president of your own party the benefit of the doubt."

But "every now and then," Cole concluded, "you have a legacy moment."

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