Trump hit with fierce backlash over interference remarks

President TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE roiled Washington on Thursday with his suggestion that he would accept dirt on a political opponent from a foreign government.

The remarks, made during an interview with ABC News the previous day, sparked fierce political backlash on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers faced an hours-long hounding by reporters over their position on Trump’s comments.

Democrats lashed out at Trump’s suggestion that if a foreign government offered information he would “take it,” while Republicans raced to distance themselves from the president’s remarks.

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Several GOP senators, faced with either remaining silent or potentially inviting the president’s wrath, choose to break with Trump.

“I think that’s wrong. That’s a mistake,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform MORE (R-S.C.), a frequent Trump defender, told reporters. “I’ve been consistent on this, if a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value ... the right answer is 'no.' ”

Graham later said that he spoke with Trump about his election interference remarks from Wednesday and reiterated that, “when it goes down the road of 'I've got dirt on your opponent,' that's a bright line. The answer is no.”

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal Schumer leaves door open for second vote on bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-Utah) said accepting information from a foreign government with the intent to meddle would be “unthinkable.” 

“It would be totally inappropriate and it would strike at the heart of our democracy,” said Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee for president who has clashed with Trump several times.

“I’ve run for Senate twice, I’ve run for governor once, I’ve run for president twice, so far as I know we never received any information from any foreign government … We would have immediately informed the FBI,” Romney said.

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Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Infrastructure vote fails; partisan feud erupts over Jan. 6 panel Senate falling behind on infrastructure MORE (R-Maine), who is running for reelection in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Shontel Brown gaining ground against Nina Turner in Ohio: poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand MORE won in 2016, said the “proper action” for Trump or anyone else when a hostile foreign government offers information is to “call the FBI.”

Asked what the president should do if a foreign government offers opposition research on an opponent, Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms MORE (R-Colo.), one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection next year, shot back: "Just say no."

"I mean, turn it over," Gardner added.

Complicating the political calculation for Republicans, Trump’s comments contradict advice from FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was confirmed in 2017 in a 92-5 vote. Wray has said that a politician offered dirt on a rival candidate from a foreign source should tell the FBI.

When ABC's George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosSullivan: Comments by North Korea's Kim an 'interesting signal' Facebook VP says 2-year suspension of Trump from platform 'justified' Commerce secretary on cyberattacks against corporations: 'This is the reality' MORE pointed out Wray’s remarks to Trump on Wednesday, the president said, “The FBI director is wrong.”

“I think you might want to listen. There’s nothing wrong with listening,” Trump told ABC. “It’s not an interference. They have information. I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI.”

His remarks come on the heels of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s two-year investigation into interference in the 2016 election, which did not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian government.

However, Mueller’s report detailed various instances of Russia attempting to interfere in the 2016 election and documented “numerous links” and conversations between Trump campaign officials and Moscow.

Democrats are using Mueller’s findings to make the case for their own investigation into Trump and his administration.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks Senators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers Hillicon Valley: Senators introduce bill to require some cyber incident reporting | UK citizen arrested in connection to 2020 Twitter hack | Officials warn of cyber vulnerabilities in water systems MORE (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tried to pass legislation Thursday that would require a campaign to report attempted election assistance from a foreign national to the FBI, but he was blocked by Senate Republicans.

Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuPost-Trump, Biden seeks to restore US relations with Holy See California Democrats clash over tech antitrust fight Tech antitrust bills create strange bedfellows in House markup MORE (D-Calif.) called Trump’s comments “illuminating,” adding that the president “believes he is above the law.”

“That he can commit an illegal act and not inform the FBI,” Lieu added.

Trump’s remarks have given momentum to Democrats who are calling for Trump to be impeached, a headache for Democratic leaders who want to avoid an impeachment inquiry.

“He's making his own case for us to do the inquiry. Those of us who feel the other way, those numbers are increasing. At some point, it will hit a tipping point,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Overnight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia Warren-backed amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to defense bill MORE (D-Mass.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (D-N.Y.) doubled down on their calls to impeach Trump in the wake of his interview; meanwhile, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisJD Vance takes aim at culture wars, childless politicians Poll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Ron Johnson: 'I may not be the best candidate' for 2022 midterms MORE (D-Calif.) called him a “national security” threat.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiYellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Tokyo Olympics kick off with 2020-style opening ceremony MORE (D-Calif.) on Thursday said Trump’s remarks showed he has “no ethical sense” but said it did not move the House toward impeachment.

“He does not know the difference between right and wrong and that's probably the nicest thing I can say about him,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Biden administration stokes frustration over Canada Schumer blasts McCarthy for picking people who 'supported the big lie' for Jan. 6 panel MORE (D-N.Y.) during a floor speech said Trump’s remarks are “undemocratic, un-American, disgraceful.”

But on the other side of the aisle, not all Republicans were as ready to criticize Trump's remarks, though none have offered to back up his claims that candidates should accept information from a foreign government.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHas Trump beaten the system? Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi MORE (R-Calif.) told reporters on Thursday that believes "the president would always do the right action." 

"I’ve watched this president. I’ve listened to this president. He does not want foreign governments interfering in our election. He’s been very strong about that,” McCarthy said. “He’s been so strong against Russia.”

Some GOP senators also tried to flip the script by raising the 2016 election and the controversial opposition research dossier against Trump, known as the Steele dossier. Sources told The Washington Post in 2017 that Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) helped fund the research that was ultimately turned into the dossier.

"I'm a little astonished at the outrage that I've heard because I didn't hear equal outrage when Hillary Clinton and the DNC paid a foreign spy to gather information from Russia," said Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections MORE (R-Iowa).

But, Grassley added, the "bottom line is that whether you're a Republican campaign or a Democratic campaign you've got to be very protective of making sure that you don't do anything that enhances a goal of a foreign national or a foreign country."

Asked about Trump's comments, Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (R-N.C.), stressed that he wanted to first include the "context" that "we've got to start with the Clinton campaign that accepted information from a former foreign agent."

"If I had knowledge that it was someone from a foreign country my first phone call would be to the FBI," Tillis said.

Asked if he had accepted information from a foreign government, he added, "absolutely not."

Mike Lillis and Scott Wong contributed.