Trump hit with fierce backlash over interference remarks

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? 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 GrahamWhite House won't move forward with billions in foreign aid cuts GOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Cindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death 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 RomneyRomney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' A US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity 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 CollinsOvernight Health Care: Insurance lobby chief calls Biden, Sanders health plans 'similarly bad' | Trump officials appeal drug price disclosure ruling | Study finds 1 in 7 people ration diabetes medicine due to cost Collins downplays 2020 threat: 'Confident' reelection would go well if she runs Cook Political Report moves Susan Collins Senate race to 'toss up' MORE (R-Maine), who is running for reelection in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces DHS cyber agency to prioritize election security, Chinese threats ABC chose a debate moderator who hates Trump 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 Scott GardnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic field narrows with Inslee exit Inslee seeking third term as governor after ending presidential bid 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 StephanopoulosABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate Bret Baier calls out Trump for lashing out at Fox News polls: 'Fox has not changed' Trump allies defend attacks on Cummings amid Democratic denunciations 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) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony 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 WarnerLawmakers sound alarm on China's disinformation campaign in Hong Kong Facebook users in lawsuit say company failed to warn them of known risks before 2018 breach New intel chief inherits host of challenges 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. LieuLawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator Cities are the future: We need to coordinate their international diplomacy George Conway opposes #unfollowTrump movement 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 Ann WarrenGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE (D-Mass.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate Gillibrand unveils mental health plan MORE (D-N.Y.) doubled down on their calls to impeach Trump in the wake of his interview; meanwhile, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate MORE (D-Calif.) called him a “national security” threat.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Conservatives push Trump tariff relief over payroll tax cuts Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJewish Democratic congresswoman and veteran blasts Trump's 'disloyalty' comments Schumer says Trump encouraging anti-Semites Saagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? 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 Owen McCarthyOmar says US should reconsider aid to Israel I'm not a Nazi, I'm just a dude: What it's like to be the other Steve King Trump finds consistent foil in 'Squad' 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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces White House denies exploring payroll tax cut to offset worsening economy Schumer joins Pelosi in opposition to post-Brexit trade deal that risks Northern Ireland accord 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 TillisThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Gun reform groups to pressure GOP senators with rallies in all 50 states To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies 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.