A scandal or controversy about the Trump administration typically provokes outrage and fiery speeches from Capitol Hill Democrats, who have used such issues to portray the new president as inept or unethical.
But on the day after FBI Director James Comey was fired, lawmakers were not stirred up. They were shaken.
They called it a constitutional crisis. They worried aloud about the integrity of the executive branch, of the criminal justice system and America's very democracy. And while Democrats called for a special prosecutor to continue the inquiry Comey had started about possible connections between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, they rejected the idea that this was about Democrats vs. Republicans, or even the legislative branch tussling with the executive branch in time-worn turf battles.
Instead, Democratic lawmakers (and some Republicans) cast the Comey firing – along with all the questions the move raises about the Trump camp's connections to Russia and the future of the investigation – as a matter that goes directly to the cherished American ideal of a commander-in-chief who is accountable to the people.
"There is no more important issue I will face as a United States senator than upholding the integrity of our justice system and our constitution. And right now, both are in peril because of political interference by the president of the United States in an ongoing investigation," says Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who previously served as his state's attorney general.
"Our democracy's at stake," says Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, explaining why she believes Republicans must join her and her fellow Democrats in demanding that an independent, special prosecutor be assigned to continue the Russia inquiry. The normally measured-toned Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called the firing "shocking and disturbing," and said it could "paralyze" the inquiry into the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with the Russians
Republicans, too, expressed worry. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C. said he was "troubled by the timing and reasoning" behind Comey's dismissal, and said the move "further confuses an already difficult investigation" by his committee.
"Certainly, the timing is one that raises my attention," says Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. "There is no question that we are in a very volatile, sensitive and fragile time in this nation [regarding] the public's confidence with government. I want to make sure we do nothing that dismantles that confidence, and apparently, we've got issues."
While Republicans were more circumspect about Trump's motivations, Democrats said they found incredible the president's stated reasons for firing Comey: that he felt the former FBI director had wrongly publicly discussed the bureau's inquiry into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's emails and made "derogatory" comments about her.
"I can't believe this 'newfound concern' about what was said about Hillary Clinton ten months ago," says Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and the assistant Democratic leader. "It isn't about James Comey per se. It's about his work, as far as I'm concerned, and whether it's going to continue," Durbin adds. "The argument that this was done on a professional basis raises the question, why wasn't there an assurance that all investigations will continue? That would have depoliticized the decision."
The political firestorm brought on by Tuesday evening's news put another monkey wrench into the already-sputtering process of passing legislation on Capitol Hill. While the two parties managed to agree on a measure to keep the government running through September, they have made little progress on other matters. The House passed a repeal-and-replace bill to undo Obamacare, but the Senate is writing its own version – one observers think will have little chance of passing the House, where conservative Republicans are at odds with the moderates in their party.
Tax reform is a bipartisan goal, but the two parties disagree on giving tax cuts to the wealthy and to corporations, as the Trump administration wants to do. Immigration overhaul is not even discussed, since Democrats and some Republicans are too focused on denying Trump his "big beautiful wall" with Mexico. "I hope we can walk and chew gum at the same time," muses Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. But "we'll see," he adds.
A day that was supposed to be dominated by wonky Senate business, such as moving ahead with the confirmation of the U.S. Trade Representative and working on a Senate health care bill – was overwhelmed by the Comey firing.
Senate Democrats invoked an obscure Senate rule to limit the amount of time committees could meet, effectively shrinking the legislative work that could be done. The day's opening of the Senate – generally an unceremonious and ill-attended procedure which has the majority leader and minority leader laying out the agenda for the day and exchanging opening speeches – was transformed Wednesday into a staid, almost somber, affair.
Nearly every Democratic senator sat, unusually, in the chamber as Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. voiced his alarm at the Comey dismissal and the questions it raised. He asked for an all-senators, closed session – classified, if necessary – so lawmakers could hear from the attorney general and deputy attorney general who recommended to Trump that Comey be fired. Schumer also called for a special prosecutor, an idea dismissed by the Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But that idea, too, raised concerns for other lawmakers who simply don't know if they can trust the administration to assign someone who would conduct a truly independent inquiry. Several Democratic senators argued that Attorney General Jeff Sessions already violated his own recusal from the investigation into the Trump team's ties with Russia when he signed a letter to the president recommending that Comey be fired. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oreg., said Sessions should resign.
"I understand the desire to have a special prosecutor. The problem is, the special prosecutor is selected by the attorney general's office," says Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. He joined some GOP colleagues is expressing concerns about the motivation behind Comey's dismissal. "There is a need for not just us, but for the American people to know, why now?" Lankford says.
Those questions are likely to change the agenda in the Senate, whose intelligence committee is set to hear from acting FBI director Andrew McCabe Thursday. And Comey has been invited to testify next week. Their testimony may determine whether lawmakers are satisfied with doing their own investigations, or will continue to call for an outside prosecutor or (as lawmakers in both parties have suggested) a select congressional committee. "Everything concerns me," a grim-faced Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says about the Comey firing. And senators say they are determined to get to the bottom of it. How they will do so is an open question.