- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2017

He may have been thousands of miles away in Saudi Arabia, but President Trump on Sunday still could not escape blistering criticism from leading figures in his own party.

Top Republican lawmakers unloaded on the president, hammering his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and his failure to publicly address human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere across the Middle East. They castigated Mr. Trump at the same time he was addressing Arab leaders in a highly anticipated speech in Riyadh.

Influential Republicans offered little defense of Mr. Trump’s actions, breaking with the White House and proving that an overseas trip will not offer the respite from domestic scandals that the president desperately needs.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a frequent critic of the administration, offered perhaps the most scathing attack. He said Mr. Trump’s behavior over the past several weeks has left him speechless.

The senator took specific aim at the president’s recent meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other Russian officials in the Oval Office. During the meeting, Mr. Trump reportedly discussed classified information and referred to Mr. Comey as a “nut job,” just a day after firing him, and said the termination eased pressure on his administration.

“Honestly, I cannot explain a lot of the president’s actions,” Mr. McCain said.” “Mr. Comey was highly respected and highly regarded, so I can’t explain it. I don’t think it was a smart thing to do.”

The senator said it was fundamentally wrong for Mr. Trump to even hold such a meeting with Russian officials while Congress and the FBI were investigating Moscow’s meddling in the presidential election and suspected coordination with the Trump campaign.

“I’m almost speechless because I don’t know why someone would say something like that,” said Mr. McCain, referring to reports that Mr. Trump disparaged Mr. Comey during the meeting. “But I know this: Mr. Lavrov is the stooge of a thug and a murderer. … He had no business in the Oval Office.”

Other influential Republicans stressed that their investigation into Russian meddling, and whether that investigation led Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Comey, will continue on a parallel track to the FBI’s query. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller is now heading that investigation.

In the meantime, lawmakers are pursuing memos Mr. Comey kept after meetings with the president. One of those memos reportedly recounts a conversation in which the president asked Mr. Comey to pull the plug on an investigation into former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a key figure in the Russia probe.

Mr. Trump also reportedly asked Mr. Comey to pledge his loyalty to the administration, a request the former FBI chief apparently denied. Republicans said such a request would be wholly inappropriate.

“Obviously, when you’re an agent at the bureau, all the way up to the director of the bureau, you don’t take a loyalty pledge. That’s a specific agency that has a really hard job. And we need the American people to know that they can trust the FBI in the future,” Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, told ABC’s “This Week.”

Mr. Comey will appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence after the Memorial Day recess.

Meanwhile, the administration faced criticism for failing to make human rights a centerpiece of its trip to the Middle East. While White House officials say women’s rights and human rights were raised in private discussions, they were absent from public dialogue with Saudi officials.

Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are among the worst in the world.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said he would prefer a more direct approach from the president.

“I think it’s in our national security interest to advocate for democracy, freedom and human rights. I would tell you the White House and I have a different approach on the issue of human rights,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “But he’s the president, so our hope is they will at least raise these issues in private.”

Mr. McCain was more direct in his criticism.

“America is the unique nation in history, with all of our errors and failings and mistakes we’ve made. … We have stood up for people,” he told Fox News. “We have to stand up for what we believe in, or we’re no different.”

Pressed on the human rights concerns, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson suggested that the administration is taking a more nuanced approach. He said the president has “learned a lot” about the Middle East and its culture during his trip and argued that defeating the Islamic State group is the key to improving human rights in the region.

“I think the way you address those human rights issues and women’s rights issues is to improve conditions in the region,” he told Fox News on Sunday.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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