Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' 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 TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report 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 McConnellLawmakers skeptical of progress on spending deal as wall battle looms Impeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill 'Saturday Night Live' presents Trump impeachment hearings with 'pizzazz' of soap opera 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 RomneyDeval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Ocasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field Jon Huntsman expected to run for governor in Utah 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 CollinsOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in a state Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonImpeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter 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 GardnerTariffs threaten 1.5M jobs: Study This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' 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 McSallyThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' Advocates step up efforts for horse racing reform bill after more deaths 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 BarrGOP rep predicts watchdog report on alleged FISA abuses will find 'problems' Barr defends Trump's use of executive authority, slams impeachment hearings GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse 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 PortmanWhy Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump GOP lawmakers fear Trump becoming too consumed by impeachment fight 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 RubioGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump Paul's demand to out whistleblower rankles GOP colleagues 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 PelosiSchumer calls on Trump to testify as part of impeachment inquiry Sunday shows — Spotlight shifts to Sondland ahead of impeachment inquiry testimony Perception won't be reality, once AI can manipulate what we see 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 WarrenBiden says he won't legalize marijuana because it may be a 'gateway drug' Democrats seize on report of FedEx's Elizabeth Warren tax bill to slam Trump's tax plan Warren 'fully committed' to 'Medicare for All' 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.