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Murkowski and Sullivan express concern over evolving White House drama

WASHINGTON — Alaska's U.S. senators have been cringing at the barrage of breaking news coming out of President Donald Trump's White House.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski was leaning toward becoming the first Republican senator to favor appointing a special counsel to pursue an investigation into Russia's involvement in the election when the Justice Department announced it would do just that on Wednesday.

It seems like "every day there is another story that leads to more questions, and the administration's trying to figure out how they're going to dig out of that hole, and then the next day there's another hole that they're digging," Murkowski said in an interview Tuesday night in the Capitol building. As if on cue, The New York Times published its story on Comey's fastidious note-taking less than 30 minutes later.

Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, expressed high hopes after their party gained control of the House, Senate and White House in January, though they both publicly dropped their support for Trump before the November election.

But the questions about the president's actions are piling up: the motivations behind his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his interactions with Russian officials in the Oval Office, and whether Trump asked Comey to drop his investigation of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

And all that has come with mixed messages from White House staffers and the president.

Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski at the Glenn Massay Theater in Palmer on Aug. 4, 2016. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Both Murkowski and Sullivan said the White House needs better management, from the top down, to keep the confidence of the American people and Congress. And they agreed more information is needed.

Both were confident about the ability of the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee to conduct thorough investigations, though Murkowski was beginning to lean toward calling for an independent investigator.

"I think so much of this is just a management issue," Murkowski said, speaking of contradictory messages from the president and his staff.

Sullivan said he has high hopes for policy objectives that could be achieved by the Republican White House. But "when you have these kinds of regularly occurring episodes, it takes (away) the executive branch's ability to be able to focus on these big agenda items … and it takes Congress's eye off" the agenda too, he said. "So my message to them is discipline, credibility with the American people, with Congress and with allies overseas. Let's get to work."

"We need to have, we need to have an honest, open investigation," Murkowski said Tuesday night. Many "Alaskans are, I think, really, really concerned about what they're seeing," she said.

Sullivan said Wednesday afternoon he needed to learn the details behind recent anonymously sourced news reports that raise questions about the inner workings of the Trump White House. Without knowing the source of the information, it is difficult to "pin down what the facts are," Sullivan said.

Both of Alaska's senators asserted their confidence in the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating interference by Russia into U.S. elections and the country's potential ties with the Trump campaign.

Murkowski said it was fairly clear "that things were not going well in a bipartisan basis on the House side." But in the Senate, "I believe that they have the ability to conduct a thorough and a fair investigation," Murkowski said.

"I think we need to look critically at how are we going to ensure that there is a process that the public feels is fair and transparent and unbiased and will take the investigation wherever it should go," Murkowski said.

"But if people don't believe that it has been fair and open and transparent, then maybe we haven't accomplished what we need to accomplish," she added.

Before the appointment of the Justice Department's special counsel Wednesday evening, Murkowski suggested that might be the way to go. But she cautioned: "You're never going to find that perfect  person to head it. You're never going to be free from the criticism. It is not the perfect panacea."

Prior to the announcement, Sullivan said he wasn't yet interested in an outside investigation, and expressed support for the Senate's probe.

"Let me put it this way: I believe that all the members of that committee, and I've spoken to almost all of them on these issues — are working in a bipartisan fashion on an important and complicated issue. Given that, given the time that they're putting into it, given their other responsibilities — that's not all they do — I think it's moving forward in a way that I find acceptable right now," he said.

In a statement shared late Wednesday, after dinner with Defense Secretary James Mattis, Sullivan reiterated his confidence in the Senate committee, but said he respects the Justice Department's decision to appoint special counsel.

"Former FBI director and Marine, Robert Mueller, has a well-earned reputation as a man of character and integrity and will give this matter the seriousness with which it deserves," Sullivan said.

Sullivan also said he wants to see Comey testify in a public hearing.

In addition to concerns about the president's firing and interactions with Comey, the president has been accused of revealing confidential anti-terrorism information to Russian officials that visited him in the oval office last week.

"The president has made very clear that he has the ability, lawfully, to share the information that he has," Murkowski said.

But there are still concerns, both senators said, about the content and the context.

"You know, Russia's not our friend. Russia's not an ally," Sullivan said.

On Thursday, the entire Senate will attend a closed briefing with the deputy attorney general to gain information and ask questions about the firing of Comey. The Senate committee and the House Oversight Committee have each invited Comey to testify.

Alaska's sole congressman, Republican Don Young, said in a written statement that he supports the Justice Department's decision to appoint special counsel, but he did not believe it was necessary.

"I still believe that the ongoing investigations — including those by the bipartisan House and Senate Intelligence Committees — should continue to follow the facts, reach an understanding and conclusion as to what occurred and report their findings to the American people," Young said.