GOP sets up firewall for Trump on Mueller

Senate Republicans are beginning to set up a firewall for President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE against special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Liberal super PAC launches ads targeting vulnerable GOP senators over SCOTUS fight Senate GOP faces pivotal moment on pick for Supreme Court 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 GrassleyCollins says she will vote 'no' on Supreme Court nominee before election The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, GOP allies prepare for SCOTUS nomination this week Gardner signals support for taking up Supreme Court nominee this year 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 RomneySenate GOP aims to confirm Trump court pick by Oct. 29: report The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot 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 GrahamSenate GOP aims to confirm Trump court pick by Oct. 29: report The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot 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 GardnerOvernight Health Care: US coronavirus deaths hit 200,000 | Ginsburg's death puts future of ObamaCare at risk | Federal panel delays vote on initial COVID-19 vaccine distribution The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot 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 SchumerChuck SchumerSenate Democrats introduce legislation to probe politicization of pandemic response Schumer interrupted during live briefing by heckler: 'Stop lying to the people' Jacobin editor: Primarying Schumer would force him to fight Trump's SCOTUS nominee 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 BluntSocial media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Senate GOP faces pivotal moment on pick for Supreme Court This week: Supreme Court fight over Ginsburg's seat upends Congress's agenda 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.