Vulnerable Republicans flee from Trump

House Republicans facing tough reelection bids are running for cover from Donald Trump — an early sign that they believe the president’s deepening scandals could cost them their seats and even put the House in play.

More than 10 centrist Republicans over the past 48 hours have criticized Trump for reportedly sharing classified information with Russian officials or allegedly trying to quash an FBI investigation. Many joined Democrats in calling for a special prosecutor to take the reins of the Justice Department investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. (The DOJ named a special counsel on Wednesday.) Others want a select congressional committee to be appointed.

One swing-district lawmaker, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, raised the possibility of impeaching Trump if it turns out to be true that he leaned on FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. But in case it wasn’t clear how Curbelo felt about the matter, his office called reporters to make sure they emphasized Curbelo was the first Republican lawmaker to utter the “I-word.”

“Obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense, so that is an allegation that we have to take very seriously,” Curbelo told a Miami CBS affiliate. “That does not mean it happened, but if this story is accurate, it may have happened. Whatever the case is, we need to get the facts.”

The break from Trump among centrist Republicans is especially notable because some of them had stuck by the president through the brutal fight over Obamacare repeal legislation two weeks ago, backing an unpopular bill despite great political risk at home.

Case in point: Rep. Steve Knight of California, a top target for Democrats in 2018. Hillary Clinton carried his district by nearly 7 points, and Cook Political Report moved his reelection rating from “lean Republican” to “toss-up” after he voted for the health care bill.

But on Tuesday, after reports that Trump shared classified intelligence with Russia, Knight backed a special prosecutor to take over the ongoing FBI investigation, arguing that “there is so much conflicting information from many sources.”

“Americans deserve the opportunity to learn the truth,” Knight said in a statement.

The moves suggest that the most endangered GOP incumbents believe that loyalty to the White House could cost them their jobs.

“Any member of Congress who represents a marginal or swing district better develop their own brand very quickly,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who leads the moderate Tuesday Group. “It wouldn’t be too hard to figure out what the opposition’s attacks on them will be: They’re going to call everybody a rubber stamp” for Trump.

Dent also said Republicans “can’t assume for a moment that the majority is safe” — noting that the party controlling the White House typically loses many seats in the first midterm election after the president is elected.

“We’re only talking about a 24-vote swing, and if you believe the political prognosticators, we’ll be in a pretty competitive situation in the midterms,” he continued, referring to the maximum number of seats the GOP can lose and still hold the House.

After the November election, GOP leaders including Speaker Paul Ryan said vulnerable House Republicans did better than expected thanks to Trump’s coattails. But no one is making that argument now.

In the past, GOP leaders have told Republicans to feel free to criticize Trump to reflect the sentiment of their districts.

And GOP insiders say leaders will impart the same message to members in the coming months if Trump continues to stumble.

“Folks in swing districts have to represent their constituents, and that means they’ll be the first to push back in the event that independent and swing voters call for them to be a check on Trump,” said one senior House Republican who asked not to be named.

Protests from moderates continued into Monday and Tuesday after The Washington Post reported that Trump disclosed highly classified information to Russian officials in the Oval Office.

“Media reports are deeply concerning & I will raise issue surrounding disclosure of classified info in @HouseIntelComm when we meet this week,” Rep. Frank LoBiando (R-N.J.) tweeted.

By Tuesday morning, several others had joined him. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted that “sharing classified info to one of our enemies is a threat to our national security, troops on the ground & relationships w/ trusted allies.” He’s since gone on TV to echo those comments.

Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents a swing district in Northern Virginia, also jumped into the fray. “We need to have immediate classified briefings on what occurred at this meeting so that Congress can at least know as much as Russian leaders and know the impact on our national security, our allies and our men and women protecting our country,” she said in a statement.

While polls suggest that Republican voters give Trump the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Russia investigation, the issue has energized the Democratic base. That’s why moderates from districts with large Democratic or independent populations are most exposed as the scandals unfold.

Republicans disagree how much the Russia-Comey controversy might jeopardize their House majority. GOP pollster David Winston said it’s unlikely to be a deciding factor for voters in 2018. But he noted that the drama is distracting elected Republicans from the core issues they campaigned on, including tax reform and jobs.

And that, Winston said, could create a problem.

“One of the things you saw in terms of this election is a frustration of the electorate, their voice wasn’t being heard. They were saying, ‘Why aren’t you paying attention to the issues we’re concerned about?’” Winston said. “The challenge for [Republicans] is that this topic has now been front and center for a while.”

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