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On Trump-Russia links, a telling silence from the Republicans

Washington: Many in Washington are running too fast, too hard to get to Watergate. But as the White House hunkers, seemingly in the hope that the worst week of the Trump presidency will simply blow over, Republicans in Congress have reached a crossroads.

It can't be said they are in revolt against their leader. But eerily absent from the airwaves is the customary Yankee Doodle Dandy defence of Donald Trump that Republicans invariably mount following reports on the crisis du jour.

Even before former FBI director Robert Mueller was named special counsel to head the probe into any links between Trump and Russia, the feeling in Washington had seemingly changed.

If media airtime is the oxygen of Washington politics, witness Fox News' remarkable story on Tuesday evening.

Eye-balling the camera, host Bret Baier told viewers: "We have tried tonight to get Republicans to come out and talk to us, but there are no Republicans willing to go on camera tonight as of yet."

Same deal at CBS on Wednesday morning - CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose revealed that his crew had asked 20 different Republican lawmakers to appear, and all had refused.

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Surprising too was Trump declining an invitation to call-in to the gang on his favourite Fox & Friends. And all the usual White House suspects - Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Stephen Miller and Reince Priebus - were conspicuously MIA as the media ran wall-to-wall commentary and analysis on fallout from Trump's sacking of FBI director James Comey; the Comey memos that seem to accuse Trump of pressuring the FBI boss to drop a key element of the Russia-links investigations; and Trump's embarrassing intelligence leak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

These are the many parts of the one Trump story that refuses to go away: did Moscow try to give Trump a leg-up in the 2016 election; were he or any of his associates complicit; did the President try to derail the FBI investigation; the propriety of Trump first demanding Comey's loyalty and then sacking him; and what on Earth is Trump's weird fixation with Moscow? Tom Clancy and David Baldacci eat your hearts out.

And on Wednesday evening another tantalising element of the story emerged - The Washington Post has acquired a recording of a conversation on Capitol Hill, just weeks before Trump triumphed as the GOP presidential candidate last year, in which Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy made the remarkable claim that Trump could be receiving payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

News had broken the previous day of the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee's computers and a group of senior Republicans were discussing Russian meddling in European elections when, according to the recorded conversation, McCarthy told his colleagues: "There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump." [Californian Republican Dana Rohrabacher has a reputation as a stout defender of Putin and Russia.]

Before McCarthy could elaborate, he was cut off by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan who swore all present to secrecy, saying: "No leaks ... This is how we know we're a real family here."

Ryan's office initially denied that the conversation had taken place. But, on being informed that the Post had the recording, a spokesman insisted that the exchange had been a failed attempt at humour. 

Just another day in Washington …

Judging how egregious Trump might have been depends on the political pedigree of the lawyers at the lectern. So we're grateful for a bipartisan analysis by University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics chairman Norman Eisen. Both were chief ethics lawyers for previous presidents - Painter for George W. Bush; Eisen for Barack Obama.

Declaring that Trump appears to have engaged in a criminal obstruction of justice, they write in The New York Times: "… the evidence strongly suggests the president acted corruptly. That starts with the demand for loyalty from Mr Comey, the account of which the White House disputes. That demand can reasonably be understood to mean that Mr Comey should protect Trump and follow his bidding, rather than honouring his oath to follow the evidence. It is also an implicit threat: Be loyal, or you will be fired."

But where they see "a textbook case of wrongful conduct", Florida International University law Professor Elizabeth Price Foley sees a bum rap - "as distasteful as the president's statements may be, they do not constitute an obstruction of justice. Indeed, if they did, virtually every communication between criminal defence lawyers and investigators would be a crime."

But we digress, because this saga turns, ultimately on whether Republicans in Congress have the stomach for a fight with Trump - the Democrats are hot to trot; but the tenor of GOP responses, with one or two strident exceptions, is "we need more information".

But tongues are loosening. And Republicans are saying things about Trump and his administration that they wouldn't have dared utter publicly as recently as a few weeks ago - collectively, their message is that they're losing confidence in the ability of this White House to rise above its serial scandals.

And in a signal to Trump that the sacking of Comey would not prompt the FBI to back-pedal on its investigations, on Wednesday evening the Justice Department announced the appointment of a special counsel to investigate possible collusion between Trump's campaign and associates and the Kremlin.

"In my capacity as acting attorney general I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement, in which he named Robert Mueller, who served as FBI director from 2001 to 2013, as the special counsel - a victory for Democrats. 

"My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination. What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command."

Usually taciturn, GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said there was an urgent need for Congress to hear from Trump.

"I think we need to hear from him about whatever he has to say about the events of recent days, as soon as possible, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, in public," McConnell told The Wall Street Journal.

And a slew of congressional committee leaders are demanding documents - the Comey memos from the FBI and any other records, including a White House tape recording alluded to by Trump in a threatening tweet against Comey. They are all demanding that Comey testify.

But only one of them bared his teeth - that was the GOP chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Jason Chaffetz, who tweeted his determination to get his hands on the Comey memos: "I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready."

What they are saying:

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain: "We've seen this movie before. I think it's reaching the point where it's of Watergate size and scale and a couple of other scandals that you and I have seen."

Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse: "There's a lot here that's really scary ... it's obviously inappropriate for any president to be trying to interfere with an investigation."

Pennsylvania Republican Senator Patrick Toomey: "Changes are needed at the White House."

Some Republicans are backing Democrat calls for a Watergate-style special prosecutor to investigate the enmeshed scandals and crises, but many squirm at the suggestion, fearful that such independent probes take on a life and power of their own - like, er, Watergate.

Democrats, meanwhile, are calling the GOP's bluff.

"They do as little as humanly possible just to claim that they're doing something," Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings told reporters. "Our committee should already be conducting robust and transparent investigations [but] Speaker [Paul] Ryan has shown he has zero - zero, zero - appetite."

The Republicans' "we need more information" response is a kind of halfway house, inching towards a mighty brawl with Trump in a fashion that suggests they are ready to defend the constitution - but from which they could back off at a later date.

In the time that they're not appearing on Fox News and the other networks, they'll be watching the mood of voters in a series of byelections to fill vacancies created by Trump's appointment of members of Congress to posts in his administration.

If the voters show that they want to defend the constitution from Trump, GOP members might be moved to join that defence - lest they get what Obama called a "shellacking" when they next face the voters.

Meanwhile, Trump soldiers on. Giving a commencement address to US Coast Guard cadets in Connecticut, he seemed to be talking to himself as much as the cadets, when he said: "Over the course of your life, you'll find things are not always fair.

"Things happen to you that you do not deserve and are not always warranted, but you have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight. Never, ever give up. Things will work out just fine."

He didn't dwell on the crises ricocheting through the capital. But the cadets and their families were left in no doubt about what was on the President's mind, when he told them: "No politician in history ... has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can't let them get you down, can't let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams."