Senate Republicans Dance Around Criticism After Trump’s Foreign-Dirt Comments

‘We should not allow or tolerate any foreign intervention in our elections…’

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Cory Gardner/photo by Gage Skidmore (CC)

(Steven T. Dennis and Laura Litvan, Bloomberg News) Senate Republicans are honing their playbook for distancing themselves from President Donald Trump‘s comments while avoiding criticizing him by name or taking concrete action.

This strategy was apparent Thursday as GOP lawmakers made clear they disagreed with Trump’s ABC News interview in which he said he would accept a foreign government’s offer of dirt on a political opponent without necessarily calling the FBI. Yet most of them stopped short of directly rebuking Trump or saying they would take up legislation that would clearly make such conduct illegal.

This has become a familiar act from Republicans who often disagree with their president yet are wary of being the subject of his ire — especially on Twitter. With 22 Republican senators up for reelection in 2020 on the same ballot as Trump, they are trying to avoid becoming casualties of his unpopularity among the general public without alienating his staunchest supporters.

Some of the most vulnerable of those Republicans, like Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Susan Collins of Maine, responded to questions about Trump’s comments by saying campaigns should not take such information and should call the FBI.

“Just say no,” should be the president’s response to political help offered by foreign nationals, Gardner said. “Turn it over.”

“If there’s information coming in, certainly I would be notifying the authorities on that,” Ernst said. Asked if the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. should have notified the FBI when Russian nationals offered him dirt on Hillary Clinton, Ernst nodded yes.

“In my judgment, the proper action for the president or any other federal official to take when contacted by a hostile foreign government with information or an offer of assistance is to call the FBI,” Collins said.

Trump’s comments, from an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that aired Wednesday, were remarkable because he appeared to defend hypothetical actions similar to allegations investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller regarding Russian offers to help the Trump campaign in 2016. U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia and other countries could repeat and refine their tactics to meddle in the 2020 election.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the president’s comments were “welcoming a foreign power to interfere.”

“The president’s own FBI director said it’s going to get worse in 2020,” Schumer said. “But let’s cover it up because it might have an effect we like, according to our Republican friends.”

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John Cornyn/Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC)

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who is up for reelection next year and serves on the Intelligence Committee, said he thinks foreign countries shouldn’t meddle and he wouldn’t accept foreign political help, but he also declined to cite the president by name.

“I can tell you what I would do,” Cornyn said. “I would call the FBI.”

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, a confidant of the president also up for reelection next year, called Trump’s comments “a mistake.” However, Graham also echoed many House Republicans who blamed Democrats for funding a 2016 dossier on Trump, provided by Christopher Steele, a British national.

Graham said it’s already against the law to accept assistance from a foreign government and said he’s interested in legislation dealing with foreign interference more broadly.

The sharpest GOP rebuke of Trump came from Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a frequent critic of the president who called the idea of taking foreign dirt on a rival “simply unthinkable.” If a candidate accepted the help, he said, “it simply strikes at the heart of our democracy.”

While several talked up possible legislation to take on foreign interference, there are no such bills on the fast-track to passage in the Senate. Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn blocked an effort by Democratic Sen. Mark Warner to pass a requirement to tell authorities about foreign government contacts with campaigns.

In addition to Warner’s bill, lawmakers mentioned other proposals as possible avenues for action. Gardner brought up the DETER Act bill, which would impose sanctions on countries that interfere in future elections, and Cornyn pointed to bipartisan legislation by GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democrat Dianne Feinstein to tighten registration requirements for foreign agents working in the U.S.

Grassley said Warner’s idea sounded to him like “common sense” but said he’d have to look into it.

Other Republicans simply sounded exasperated that Trump revived the idea of accepting foreign assistance for a political campaign.

“I think the easy answer to that should be, ‘no, no,’” said Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “We should not allow or tolerate any foreign intervention in our elections, to include having foreign countries try and feed information like that to campaigns.”

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