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Marco Rubio leads Florida Republicans in cautious response to Trump controversy

WASHINGTON — New controversy rocked the White House, but Sen. Marco Rubio focused on a different storm. "Sorry to be a nag but the 2017 Hurricane Season is almost here," he told Twitter followers. "Time to freshen up your hurricane kit."

Replied Ana Navarro, a Miami Republican like Rubio and a CNN commentator: "Dear @marcorubio, 2 wks until hurricane season. This FL voter would appreciate u laser focus on Cat 5 storm in DC."

Rubio's caution this week toward President Donald Trump is only the highest-profile example of the muted reaction from Florida Republicans as Trump's Russia controversy has grown. (Democrats on the other hand can't say enough.)

Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami floated the idea of impeachment, but most of his GOP colleagues have neither defended nor criticized Trump, who dominated Florida's presidential primary and won the state in November.

"Certainly it's less than ideal, but it is what it is," Rubio told reporters at the Capitol later Tuesday when asked about White House distractions and the effect on legislating. He declined to address the intelligence sharing questions at the time.

Rubio elaborated Wednesday morning on Fox & Friends, saying he had spoken with an administration official who "vehemently" denied Trump compromised intelligence relationships, but took no firm stance. "I'm not saying the news articles are wrong. I'm not saying that they are right.

"I'm saying that they raise an allegation, we have an obligation to look into them, but before we form opinions and advocate for action, we need to know what the facts are."

Rubio is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that is investigating Russian meddling in the election, issues he said deserve scrutiny. If no hard evidence is uncovered linking Trump, then prudence will have served Rubio. His Fox interview also played to a feeling among Trump's base that a liberal news media is fabricating issues.

Yet Rubio set a higher bar for himself than most Republicans. He was sharply critical of Hillary Clinton's handling of classified material, saying it disqualified her from office, has been outspoken about Russia and pitched himself as someone who would be unafraid to challenge Trump — a man he once deemed a fraud.

"The prospect of a Trump presidency is also worrisome to me in many ways," Rubio said last June in announcing he'd seek another Senate term after bowing out of the presidential race. He said he would encourage Trump "in the right direction, but if it's necessary, stand up to him." The Senate, Rubio noted, can serve as a "check and balance on the excesses of the president."

Some Republicans have publicly expressed alarm at the White House turmoil. "Obviously, they're in a downward spiral right now," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. And there is growing concern on Capitol Hill that it will jam up the legislative agenda.

Many, though, are trying to avoid engaging in the public debate, dodging reporters and declining to issue statements. Take Florida: The Tampa Bay Times asked 10 of the 16 Republican House members for interviews and almost no one agreed, including Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor. A spokeswoman for Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland wrote: "We really appreciate you reaching out, but we will have to respectfully decline to comment at this time."

Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota did issue a statement Wednesday echoing calls for former FBI director James Comey to come forward with what he knows.

"Mr. Comey should be asked to testify in public so that Congress and the American people can get all the facts and learn the truth," Buchanan said. "And we need to see Mr. Comey's memo regarding his discussion with the president. Transparency is the best disinfectant."

Trump enjoyed broad support in most GOP-heavy congressional districts in the 2016 election. A lawmaker who is too critical of the president could invite trouble with constituents — or draw a primary challenger.

Lawmakers in Miami-Dade, which Clinton won easily, have no such problem. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring, and Curbelo have openly questioned Trump.

Curbelo, who has faced heat for voting for the GOP health care plan, became the first Republican to raise the idea of impeachment after reports that Trump may have asked Comey to drop a probe into Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who resigned after it became clear he misled officials about talks with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

"For anyone to attempt to influence or impede a federal investigation, that certainly could be construed as obstruction of justice," Curbelo said in an interview with the Times on Wednesday. "Again, this is an allegation. It doesn't mean it happened. But obstruction of justice traditionally has been considered an impeachable offense by the Congress."

A third Miami Republican, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, represents a more conservative district and has been circumspect. After news of the Comey memo emerged Tuesday, he said, "As more concerning details emerge, it's important to reserve judgment until all of the facts are clear."

That's the posture Rubio has taken with much of the controversies surrounding Trump. He thrilled Trump detractors early on by forcefully questioning the qualifications of Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department.

He eventually voted to confirm him and overall, Rubio has been notably measured in his approach to Trump, who in February had Rubio and his wife, Jeanette, to the White House for dinner and has taken Rubio on Air Force One during a trip to Florida.

Rubio, who is trying to reverse Obama administration changes in Cuba, could be trying to avoid Trump stifling his agenda while preserving standing with the Republican base.

"You damn well better stand with our president," a woman from South Carolina reacted Wednesday on Twitter to Rubio's Fox & Friends appearance. "This is OUTRAGEOUS."

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

Marco Rubio leads Florida Republicans in cautious response to Trump controversy 05/17/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 17, 2017 9:27pm]
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[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images, 2017]