GOP sets up firewall for Trump on Mueller

Senate Republicans are beginning to set up a firewall for President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE against special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE’s report, pushing back at a slew of Democratic attacks on the president’s conduct as described in the document.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges MORE (R-Texas) on Monday set the tone for his caucus’s rank and file, signaling the GOP will join the White House in casting Democratic attacks emanating from the Mueller report as being all about the 2020 campaign.

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“If this were legitimate oversight, that would be one thing, but I think this is more like harassment and it’s all politics,” said Cornyn, formerly the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. “Obviously Democrats were very disappointed in the Mueller report and they’re not willing to accept the conclusions and move on.”

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces White House denies exploring payroll tax cut to offset worsening economy Schumer joins Pelosi in opposition to post-Brexit trade deal that risks Northern Ireland accord MORE (R-Iowa), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said House Democratic subpoenas and demands for senior administration officials to testify are unnecessary because “the president already gave a million pages to oversight,” referring to Trump’s order to the director of national intelligence and the Justice Department to declassify Russia-related documents.

Grassley downplayed Mueller’s finding that Trump ordered then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, arguing “there wasn’t any crime committed.”

“Any conversation that a president has with anybody is between him and his colleagues,” Grassley added.

The GOP arguments are a departure from some comments made by Republican senators in the days after the Mueller report was released.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' A US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (R-Utah), in comments a day after Mueller’s full report with redactions was released by the Department of Justice, said he was “sickened” by the “extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection” by people working for the highest office in the land, including the president.

“I am also appalled that, among other things, fellow citizens working in a campaign for president welcomed help from Russia,” said Romney, who has feuded with Trump in the past and was the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.

Since then, criticisms of Trump from Romney and other Republicans have been muted, suggesting the GOP is getting on the same page as the party seeks to contend with investigations launched by Democrats. GOP senators have largely opted to steer clear of commenting on specific allegations, such as the report’s claim that Trump ordered that Mueller be fired.

While defending Trump could be tricky for some Republican senators up for reelection in blue states next year, most in the GOP are beginning to sound like Cornyn.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWhite House won't move forward with billions in foreign aid cuts GOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Cindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death MORE (R-S.C.) told CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday: “I don’t care what happened between him and Don McGahn.”

Trump, last week, denied that he directed McGahn to terminate Mueller, claiming, “if I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn’t need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself.”

Cornyn told reporters Monday that Trump’s conversations with McGahn aren’t relevant because Mueller was never fired.

“While there were some comments about stopping … Mr. Mueller, that was never followed through on,” Cornyn said, noting that the president didn’t need his aides to get rid of Mueller and could have fired him himself.

Political experts warn that Republicans have to be careful not to defend Trump so ardently that it might come back to hurt their candidates in tight races in 2020.

Senate Republicans will have to defend 22 seats while Democrats have to protect only 12.

“It strikes me that some of them are going to be vulnerable on not taking the Russia threat seriously,” said Steven S. Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.

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He said that Volume I of Mueller’s report on interference in the 2016 election and recent disclosures that Russia tried to meddle in the 2018 midterms as well will make it tough for Republicans to avoid pressure to take up additional sanction or election security legislation.

“Those Republicans up for reelection are going to be facing challengers, so we might be seeing some cracks in the armor of Republicans as we approach the end of this year,” he said. 

Republicans are seeking to put the focus on Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election instead of Trump’s conduct, trying to shield themselves from charges that they’re not taking the Russian threat seriously enough.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerHickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic field narrows with Inslee exit MORE (Colo.), one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, has introduced legislation with a bipartisan group of colleagues that would authorize financing for energy projects to help European allies become less dependent on Russian natural gas exports.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJewish Democratic congresswoman and veteran blasts Trump's 'disloyalty' comments Schumer says Trump encouraging anti-Semites Saagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? MORE (D-N.Y.) on Monday challenged Republicans to take action in the wake of Mueller’s findings.

“What are my Republican friends going to do with it?” he asked on the Senate floor.

Schumer argued that Mueller likely stopped short of pursuing an obstruction of justice charge against Trump because of the Justice Department’s policy against the indictment of sitting presidents. He noted 10 instances detailed in Mueller’s report where the president may have obstructed justice as well as findings that Trump’s campaign advisers were aware that Russia was trying to alter the outcome of the 2016 election.

Democrats are also pointing to FBI Director Christopher Wray’s warning Friday that Russia will continue to use social media to have an impact on American politics.

“They use social media … to try and spin us up and pit us against each other, and to undermine Americans faith in democracy,” Wray said at an event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity GOP group targets McConnell over election security bills in new ad MORE (R-Mo.), however, told reporters Monday afternoon that nothing in Mueller’s report convinced him that the Senate needs to move legislation to protect U.S. elections.

He said Russian interference was more contained in 2018 than in 2016.

Cornyn, asked if election security legislation or additional sanctions against Russia are warranted, said, “I would be glad to entertain anything else anybody wants to suggest.”

“Certainly, there should be a price that Russia pays for attempting to meddle in our elections,” he said of additional sanctions.

On the question of election security, Cornyn said, “We need to be as aggressive as we can be on security, but I don’t know if it requires additional legislation.”

A Senate Republican leadership source, however, predicted that Senate Republicans will not take any legislative action in response to Mueller’s report.

Jordain Carney contributed.