Senate Republicans are moving swiftly to distance themselves from President Donald Trump’s willingness to use foreign opposition research against his political opponents, with several senators up for reelection vowing to call the FBI immediately if they received such information.
Though senators said that receiving dirt on opponents is simply a way of life in politics, they pointedly refused to endorse Trump’s comments that he’d likely “take it” if offered and would “go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong.”
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“Accepting the work product of a foreign government or the effort of a foreign government to try and influence an election of one candidate or another? It simply strikes at the heart of our democracy,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said in an interview. “It’s wrong. It’s antithetical to our democratic principles.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, told reporters the president’s remarks were a “mistake” and “the right answer is no” if offered foreign assistance.
“You have to report it to authorities. Generally speaking it’s a part of, in the case of like Russia, it’s an effort to disrupt our elections,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is up for reelection and working to stay close to Trump amid a primary challenge. “My first call would be to the FBI, my second call would be somebody to corroborate the information.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, another incumbent on the ballot next year, also put daylight between her and Trump.
“I would not trust information coming from another country. I wouldn’t do it,” the Iowa Republican said. “I can’t speak for him, but I wouldn’t want it. I’d definitely alert the authorities.”
Still, most stopped short of calling out Trump by name. After a long pause, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that “any advice I have for the president I’ll give it to him in private.”
“Opposition research is obviously at the root of the Russian active measures campaign,” Cornyn says. “We’re all concerned about the role foreign countries have in our elections both in campaigns and sowing discord and dissension among Americans on social media and otherwise. I’d rather just have Americans participate in American elections.”
Democrats lit into Trump’s comments on Thursday, while also offering harsh words for their GOP colleagues.
“Let’s count how many of them stand up and say he’s wrong,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “You can usually do that on one hand.”
Yet Republicans were clearly irked that Trump whiffed at what they saw as a softball in an interview with ABC on the very topic that fueled former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. The interview disrupted what would have been a quiet day at the Capitol as the debate over Trump’s comments consumed Washington.
And some Republicans said it’s a slippery slope between accepting such information and doing something illegal.
“You don’t ever want to take foreign money, that’s illegal. And the next route to money is information,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “So if you take information from somebody that’s foreign and it’s involved in your campaign, you’re inviting the risk of inviting foreign money into your campaign.”
No senators interviewed for this story would explicitly back Trump up. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla) came closest, insisting that not only would he refuse such information, but Trump would too — despite the president’s comments.
But defense was otherwise in short supply.
“We had the hacking in our state so I take Russian interference in elections pretty seriously,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). “I wouldn’t accept any information.”
“I would not do it and I would encourage everyone else not to do it,” agreed Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).