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Trump hit with fierce backlash over interference remarks

President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation 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 GrahamLet's give thanks to Republican defenders of Democracy Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight 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 RomneyBiden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Paul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism 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 CollinsTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism The Memo: Trump election loss roils right MORE (R-Maine), who is running for reelection in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work Biden soars as leader of the free world 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 GardnerHillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities Democrats vent to Schumer over Senate majority failure 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 StephanopoulosPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Top aide: Biden expected to visit Georgia in push to boost Ossoff, Warnock Chris Christie: Trump's legal team has been 'a national embarrassment' 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) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 WarnerHarris shares Thanksgiving recipe: 'During difficult times I have always turned to cooking' Biden leans on foreign policy establishment to build team Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin 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. LieuHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Mark Cuban asks voters to 'reconsider' donating to Georgia run-off elections 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 WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D-Mass.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' Ocasio-Cortez says she doesn't plan on 'staying in the House forever' MORE (D-N.Y.) doubled down on their calls to impeach Trump in the wake of his interview; meanwhile, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Biden can rebuild trust in our justice system by prioritizing prosecutorial reform Harris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence MORE (D-Calif.) called him a “national security” threat.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation 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 SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn 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 McCarthyTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight 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 GrassleyRep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 On The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus Loeffler to continue to self-isolate after conflicting COVID-19 test results 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 TillisNorth Carolina — still purple but up for grabs Team Trump offering 'fire hose' of conspiracy Kool-Aid for supporters Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection 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.