Among all the likely aftershocks in the wake of President Trump’s stunning sacking of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, the most certain will be a pre-occupied White House that was only just establishing a coherent policy planning and coordination process with the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.
*** When it comes to what it may all mean for the closely-watched tax reform legislative efforts, a distracted White House may not necessarily be a bad thing. There is a sense on Capitol Hill that a White House taken out of the tax reform equation for a while may on the margin improve, rather than derail, the prospects for passing a tax reform bill in some form later this year. ***
Steering Russia Probe to Senate Intelligence
First, in terms of the heated political demands for an independent special prosecutor to lead the investigation into Russia’s interference in the US elections and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved quickly to steer those demands to the investigation already underway by the Senate Intelligence Committee under Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and Ranking Democratic Member Mark Warner of Virginia.
This will help deflect the enormous political pressure on President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to name a special prosecutor, which they have no intention of doing. But President Trump will still be facing a prolonged and deep investigation into the Russia affair.
Burr has considerable credibility on the Hill, and the Senate Intelligence Committee itself is well balanced in ideological terms. While it still lacks enough staff — so far it has been very reliant on Comey and the FBI for much of its initial work — it certainly won’t have any problem hiring staff now. And it has to be said, Burr and Warner have kept their Committee together, which can’t be said of its House counterpart, which has imploded into near political oblivion.
Burr himself was just re-elected in November in a closely watch Senate race in North Carolina, largely on the Trump wave. But he is said to have a solid reputation in the Senate for being tough and highly unlikely to adhere to White House talking points. His most immediate response to the sacking of Comey, whom Burr had come to like, was to say he was “troubled by the timing and the reasoning.”
And as an aside, by the way, naming a special counsel, whether by Congress or the Attorney General, is much more complicated than generally assumed as the laws creating special prosecutors expired due to problems with numerous special prosecutions.
Controlling the Tax Reform Process
The second point we wanted to make is to simply note a sense on Capitol Hill that since one of the political wildcards in the legislative drive for tax reform this year has been the President issuing out of the blue or uncoordinated tweets or making off the cuff demands, a pre-occupied White House may, on the margin, make it easier for McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to put together a more coordinated tax reform legislation.
As we have previously noted, we think McConnell is already likely to be the pivotal player on tax reform (see SGH 5/5/17, “US: From Here to Tax Reform”).
So when it comes to controlling the Senate (and House) calendar and legislative process – and it is always said that “he who masters the process masters the outcome” – McConnell is determined to steer the Senate clear of getting bogged down in any distractions. At this point, there is no more wind underneath the trial balloon by Senator Schumer demanding a special prosecutor.
And more to the point, a less engaged White House on the micro level of such a difficult and complicated bill like tax reform may well make it easier to better control both the process as well as the crucial policy decisions, like determining the final size of the intended corporate tax cuts and how to pay for them, if at all. It will certainly make it easier for a Republican on the Hill to ignore or defy a White House whose attention may be limited, or turned elsewhere.