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Anxious GOP treads carefully with Trump defense

Rank-and-file Republicans are treading carefully when it comes to speaking out about the escalating controversy surrounding President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE's entreaties that foreign governments investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit Protect our world: How the Biden administration can save lives and economies worldwide MORE.

Republicans don't want to get on the bad side of Trump, who is a powerhouse within the party. But they recognize a danger in speaking out too forcefully in defense of the president as details about Trump and his administration's actions slowly trickle out.

“They’re handling [it] correctly,” one former GOP lawmaker told The Hill, referring to the cautious approach. 

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“No one has any idea what Trump has or hasn’t said, so why defend?” the former lawmaker said. “Plus, even as Dems assume the worst and supplant supposition for conclusion, why defend Trump when even if it doesn’t rise to impeachment, he’s still out of line.”

While Republicans think Democrats are overreaching with their impeachment effort, which is directly tied to the foreign intervention issue, many are clearly uncomfortable with the president calling on Ukraine or China to investigate Biden. 

Some, such as Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseWhoopi Goldberg blasts Republicans not speaking against Trump: 'This is an attempted coup' Hogan 'embarrassed that more people' in the GOP 'aren't speaking up' against Trump Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump MORE (R-Neb.), have spoken publicly against it even as they have also criticized Democratic leaders on impeachment, such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTrump tells GSA that Biden transition can begin Hillicon Valley: Leadership changes at top cyber agency raise national security concerns | Snapchat launches in-app video platform 'Spotlight' | Uber, Lyft awarded federal transportation contract Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (Calif.).

“Hold up: Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth,” Sasse said in a statement to the Omaha World Herald.

House members, for the most part, have not made any criticisms of Trump in public, but they have been willing to discuss their discomfort in private.

“It's not appropriate [asking Ukraine to look into the Bidens], it's wrong,” one Republican lawmaker told The Hill. “It's at best a clumsy political move, at worst you can say it's sleazy."

“Is it a high crime and misdemeanor? No, it's not,” the lawmaker added.

But this Republican also highlighted the reason why many in the party are worried. What if more information trickles out that clearly shows Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine for a political favor related to Biden?

“Now here's the kicker, though. If there's some reasonably clear link of military aid to doing political dirty work, we've got a problem,” the lawmaker said.

Another former Republican lawmaker said while he disagrees with the notion that Trump committed an impeachable offense and believes Democrats are simply looking to “move the needle politically,” certain members’ hesitations on going to bat for the president make sense. 

“I understand from their perspective, on why they're not out there, you know, front and center, and in defending the president — they don't know what's going to happen, quite frankly,” the source told The Hill.  

“And in the end, as much as we want to say politicians need to be strong and have a big spine, a lot of them have races coming up and there is self-preservation. That's one of the reasons why Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiVoters want a strong economy and leadership, Democrats should listen On The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus MORE hasn't taken a vote on impeachment either. She hasn't put any of her people on the record for impeachment,” the ex-lawmaker said, referring to the House Speaker. 

Others say Republicans are likely to offer a louder defense of Trump when the recess ends.

One GOP aide said lawmakers are expected to be much more visible in their efforts at pushing back on impeachment when they return to Washington.

“I think if members were here, they would be vocal and active and talking about how this is ridiculous,” the senior staffer said. 

“They've [Democrats] been searching for reasons [to impeach], first they wanted it to be Russia, then it was collusion, then with obstruction, and now it's this. I mean, they have been searching for a reason to overturn the election since 2017.” 

Former GOP Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloHouse Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members House adjusts format for dinner with new members after criticism Former GOP congressman calls for Biden to receive presidential briefings MORE (Fla.), a moderate Trump critic who narrowly lost his reelection bid during the midterms, took to social media on Thursday to encourage Republicans to speak out against the president’s call for China to investigate the Bidens, tweeting that "time is running out for them to get on the right side of history.”

Curbelo said he’s spoken to a number of his former colleagues who’ve said they are “deeply troubled by the president's conduct” and feel Trump’s actions could have lasting negative consequences for both the party and country as a whole. 

“There will be a reckoning, I don't know when it will be — it could be in two weeks, it could be in two years, but there will be a reckoning. Nothing that is happening is good for our country. Our institutions are being diminished, the public's trust and confidence in government continues to erode. This does not end well,” he told The Hill in an interview, adding he feels it goes beyond impeachment.

“Look, it's just sad to watch and again, because I know how so many House Republicans truly feel and think, I just think they owe it to the American people and to share that. And I hope they do sometime soon before it's too late.”

A number of GOP lawmakers have expressed frustration with the administration’s messaging and strategy on impeachment. Some feel Republicans would be better served to focus their attacks on the process and procedures Democrats’ have embraced since embarking on the formal inquiry. 

“I think Republicans are automatically sort just going back to where they were during the Mueller days and aren't looking at this anew and waiting and finding out facts,” one former GOP investigative staffer told The Hill.