Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller

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 report poses a test for vulnerable Senate Republicans running for reelection, forcing them to decide how far to distance themselves from President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE heading into 2020.

Mueller declined to pursue charges of conspiracy, illegal coordination or obstruction of justice, but much of his report reflects poorly on the president and reveals there are several more federal investigations that have yet to wrap up.

While House Democrats will need to decide how hard to go to attack Trump in the wake of the report and whether to pursue a politically charged impeachment process, Senate Republicans have to figure out how far to go to defend the president.

“I think Republicans should avoid doing a victory lap. The main thing here was, were the Russians involved in the Trump campaign? Beyond that, the president’s got to defend his own conduct,” said Vin Weber, a GOP strategist. “Republicans should be talking about other things like the economy.”

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Asked what Republicans should do if they're asked directly about Trump’s conduct, Weber said, “That’s a tough one.” 

“I would probably deflect a little bit by saying this: We’ve all gotten used to this being a different kind of president from a different kind of background who conducts himself differently than previous presidents, and beyond that it’s his problem, not mine,” he added.

Some expect Republicans to wait to see how the highly anticipated report plays with their constituents back home over the two-week holiday recess.

“Are Republicans privately unhappy with some of Trump’s actions in the report? Yes, of course. But the majority of Republicans are not going to go after the president on this because he has not been charged with a crime,” said another Republican strategist who requested anonymity.

The strategist said it would make sense for Senate Republicans in more competitive races to be critical of Trump.

“It wouldn’t be wise for them to be backing the president when there are a lot of moderate voters out there, but that doesn’t mean they have to condemn him either,” the strategist added.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (R-Ky.) has remained tight-lipped about Mueller’s findings since issuing a statement Thursday that simply said he was looking forward "to carefully reviewing the report.”

He also said Trump “has every right to feel good about what we’ve heard today” on the day the report came out.

The strongest criticism so far has come from Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (R-Utah), who is not up for reelection but has been trying to position himself as a Republican counterweight in the Senate since taking office in January.

Romney said in a statement Friday he was "sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection" detailed in Mueller's report "by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the president." He also said he was "appalled" about evidence that Trump’s campaign advisers "welcomed help from Russia — including information that had been illegally obtained."

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure Bill would honor Ginsburg, O'Connor with statues at Capitol MORE (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in a state Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE won in 2016, told Maine Public Radio on Friday that she was disturbed by Trump’s several attempts to fire Mueller as described in the report, calling it “an unflattering portrayal of the president.”

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.), who is also on the ballot in a state that went for Clinton, has sought to put the focus on Russia instead of Trump.

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“Now that the report is public, it’s time for Congress to move forward and get to work on behalf of the American people. The report also confirms what we already know, Russia interfered in our election. I will keep up the pressure on the Putin regime and pursue additional sanctions — they cannot go unpunished,” Gardner said in a statement.

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallySchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ariz.), another top Democratic target next year, hasn’t said anything to criticize the president since the report’s release Thursday. 

Instead, she has praised Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Native Americans are targets of voter suppression too MORE for releasing “as much of the report as transparently possible.”

She also urged colleagues to “come together to focus on issues that matter to Arizonans,” such as creating well-paying jobs and affordable health care.

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet On The Money: Justice Department says Trump's tax returns should be released | Democrats fall short of votes for extending eviction ban Photos of the Week: Olympic sabre semi-finals, COVID-19 vigil and a loris MORE (R-Ohio), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that "a number of actions taken by the president or his associates" were "inappropriate."

But he emphasized there was “no conspiracy or collusion to violate U.S. law between Russia and the Trump campaign” and urged Congress to work on legislation to prevent Russia from interfering in future elections. 

Ross K. Baker, a professor of science at Rutgers University who has held multiple Senate fellowships, predicted that Republican lawmakers will stick to mild criticisms of Trump to avoid angering his many fans in the GOP base.

“They make a pragmatic decision that people have already made up their minds about Donald Trump and anything they could add by way of censure isn’t going to make any difference and probably will damage their political fortunes,” he said.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins MORE (R-Fla.), who sparred with Trump during the 2016 Republican presidential primary and has publicly disagreed with some of Trump's policies as president, issued a statement Friday that looked beyond the president’s conduct and instead focused on Russia.

Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would focus on legislation to deter Russia from future interference. He also criticized Democrats for viewing the special counsel’s investigation as a partisan opportunity.

GOP strategists say Democrats are in a tougher position because the factions of the liberal base will be pressing hard for impeachment proceedings, a tactic that backfired on House Republicans in 1998 after they impeached former President Clinton.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Justice Department says Trump's tax returns should be released | Democrats fall short of votes for extending eviction ban House adjourns for recess without passing bill to extend federal eviction ban Photos of the Week: Olympic sabre semi-finals, COVID-19 vigil and a loris MORE (D-Calif.) advised last month against trying to impeach Trump, arguing it would divide the country and that “he’s just not worth it.”

But Democratic leaders are already seeing growing calls from progressives to take a more aggressive approach.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCalifornia Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election Pelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election MORE (D-Mass.) on Friday became the first Democratic presidential candidate to call for the House to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump, citing “the severity” of the president’s “misconduct” as outlined in Mueller’s report.

That could force Republicans into a tougher position of having to vocally defend Trump.

“The Democrats are going to pursue this relentlessly,” said Ron Bonjean, a Senate Republican strategist, who predicted there could be a backlash.

“They do it at their own peril because every day that goes by that they pursue this is a day they’re not working on their own agenda,” he said. “Most Republicans have circled the wagons based on the initial Mueller four-page [summary] and want to move on now that everything has been released.”

“The challenge is that the Democrats will continue to harp and go after this, but it could boomerang against them,” he added. 

Updated 8:16 a.m.