Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump 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 John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA 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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA —Biden unveils health care plan | Proposal pitches subsidies, public option | Biden vows if you like your health insurance, 'you can keep it' | Sanders protests planned Philadelphia hospital closure 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 RomneyGOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm Liberal think tank: GOP paid parental leave proposals are too narrow Romney won't say if Trump's attacks against minority lawmakers are racist 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 CollinsGOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm GOP senator: 'Outrageous' to say Trump's tweets about Democratic congresswomen are racist Fox personalities blast Trump's remarks MORE (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in a state Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm 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 Scott GardnerBottom Line Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 jitters hit both parties in the Senate 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 McSallyFive things to watch for at Defense nominee's confirmation hearing Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Democratic challenger to McConnell raises .5 million on first day of campaign 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 BarrWilliam Pelham BarrThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet House poised to hold Barr, Ross in contempt Harris campaign accepts money from partners of law firm she criticized over Epstein case 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 PortmanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Rising number of GOP lawmakers criticize Trump remarks about minority Dems Hillicon Valley: Harris spikes in Google searches after debate clash with Biden | Second US city blocks facial recognition | Apple said to be moving Mac Pro production from US to China | Bipartisan Senate bill takes aim at 'deepfake' videos 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 RubioLiberal think tank: GOP paid parental leave proposals are too narrow GOP senator: 'Outrageous' to say Trump's tweets about Democratic congresswomen are racist House passes bills to boost small business cybersecurity 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 PelosiHouse Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Trump: I don't have a racist bone in my body Ocasio-Cortez responds to fresh criticism from Trump 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 Ann WarrenWarren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' Trump says administration will 'take a look' after Thiel raises concerns about Google, China Thiel calls Warren the most 'dangerous' Democratic candidate 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.