Trump hit with fierce backlash over interference remarks

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? 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 GrahamTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey Graham opens door to calling Hunter Biden to testify 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 RomneyDemocrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll shows Michelle Obama would lead in New Hampshire if she entered 2020 Democratic race Trump's GOP impeachment firewall holds strong 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 CollinsTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Susan Collins raises .1 million in third quarter Poll: 50 percent of Maine voters disapprove of Susan Collins's job performance MORE (R-Maine), who is running for reelection in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points 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 GardnerTrump's GOP impeachment firewall holds strong GOP braces for impeachment brawl Republicans wrestle with impeachment strategy 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 StephanopoulosKudlow: 'I don't honestly know' if Trump was joking about China investigating Bidens The Hill's Morning Report - Trump's impeachment woes mount Jordan refuses to say whether Trump asking China for investigation was appropriate 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 MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network 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 WarnerYang compares U.S. election tampering to Russia's election interference efforts Mark Warner nominates Bryan Cranston to play him in a movie Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservative politicians, pundits 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. LieuLieu accuses Trump of asking Ukraine to 'manufacture dirt' on Biden Lieu weighs in on impeachment inquiry Lieu calls for change to House rules, saying administration 'brought a machete to a knife fight' 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 WarrenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (D-Mass.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandLobbying world 2020 Presidential Candidates Krystal Ball: Yang campaign a 'triumph of substance over the theatre' MORE (D-N.Y.) doubled down on their calls to impeach Trump in the wake of his interview; meanwhile, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Calif.) called him a “national security” threat.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Democratic debate starts with immediate question on Trump impeachment White House, Pentagon, Giuliani reject House subpoenas 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 SchumerTrump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe Louisiana voters head to the polls in governor's race as Trump urges GOP support Trump urges Louisiana voters to back GOP in governor's race then 'enjoy the game' 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 McCarthy10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable Furious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Five ways Trump's Syria decision spells trouble 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 GrassleyTrump's latest plan to boost ethanol miffs both corn groups and the fossil fuel industry Syria furor underscores Trump's isolation GOP braces for impeachment brawl 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 TillisTillis says impeachment is 'a waste of resources' GOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe The Hill's Campaign Report: Warren, Sanders overtake Biden in third-quarter fundraising 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.