Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, speaks with reporters following the weekly Democratic policy meetings, at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite | AP

WASHINGTON — Democrats seized on the guilty plea of President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and the conviction of his ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort on Tuesday to demand that Republican leaders move quickly to safeguard the work of special counsel Robert Mueller III.

In the space of a single afternoon, Cohen, Trump’s longstanding self-styled “fixer,” admitted to paying hush money at the now-president’s direction after learning he faced more than a dozen years in prison, while Manafort was convicted on eight tax and bank fraud charges. The sentences facing both men are yet to be announced.

Democratic lawmakers reacted swiftly to the developments to call for action on stalled legislation that would protect Mueller’s investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election or colluded with Trump’s campaign, which the president has repeatedly described as a “witch hunt” and threatened to shut down — or even “run” himself.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, sought to send a message to the president, saying Trump “better not talk about pardons for Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort tonight, or anytime in the future.”

The top congressional Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, had no immediate reaction to Cohen’s plea or Manafort’s conviction.

“We are aware of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea to these serious charges. We will need more information than is currently available at this point,” Ryan’s office said.

With Cohen implicating the president, there were calls for the House to return from recess and immediately pass such a bill to protect Mueller’s inquiry. Notably, the initial Democratic response avoided any mention of impeachment as party leaders have argued that it is a politically perilous topic that would only energize Trump supporters and Republican voters in midterm elections.

“Republicans need to finally do their job and join us in making clear that Special Counsel Mueller will be permitted to finish his work free from political interference,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who urged Ryan to bring the House back into session.

Trump retains the authority to fire Mueller and his superiors at the Department of Justice. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation to protect Mueller from being fired by Trump in April, but it stalled due to a lack of support from McConnell or any desire to bring it to the Senate floor.

At the time Democratic lawmakers hoped the bill’s bipartisan support at the committee level would send a signal to the Trump administration not to interfere with Mueller’s work. However, the president has routinely savaged the investigation since then and legislative efforts to protect it have fizzled out.

“Today’s guilty plea and verdict make it clear that the Mueller investigation must proceed unobstructed,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, said in a tweet. “The American people need to know the truth.”

Several lawmakers said Cohen’s guilty plea raised the prospect that Trump will call off or refuse to appear before Mueller’s investigators.

“The factual basis of the plea, potentially implicating the president in illegal campaign finance violations, adds to the president’s legal jeopardy,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

“Manafort’s conviction shows that Mueller’s investigation is far from a witch hunt, as Trump falsely repeats as a mantra. It also shows his campaign and administration were rife with people with a history of unscrupulous business dealings and concerning ties to overseas interests,” he added in a later statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said: “Congressional Republicans’ determination to cover up for the president and his criminal cronies betrays their oath of office and undermines their duty to the American people. House Republicans must abandon their complicity with President Trump and affirm that no one is above the law.”

As Democrats capitalized on the day’s legal developments, most Republicans did not immediately comment or call on the president to let Mueller’s probe run without interference.

However, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said: “It’s important to let this process continue without interference. I hope Mr. Mueller can conclude his investigation sooner rather than later for the benefit of the nation.”

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