Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt'

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE has put Republican lawmakers in a tough position by saying that he would be willing to accept damaging information a foreign country such as Russia or China might offer about his 2020 Democratic rival.

Republicans were left shaking their heads Thursday over what many of them saw as a sloppy gaffe by the president, who didn’t appear to understand that what he was suggesting was against the law.

Several GOP lawmakers quickly denounced Trump’s comments, hoping to bury them and allow the controversy to blow over as soon as possible.  

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran Cruz, Graham and Cheney call on Trump to end all nuclear waivers for Iran MORE (R-S.C.) said he had to explain to Trump in a phone call Thursday morning that accepting campaign help from a foreign country is a violation of the law.

Graham said that Trump tried to defend himself by arguing that he didn’t actually say he would take foreign assistance.  

“What the president is saying is, ‘I didn’t say I’d take it.’ I said, 'Well, Mr. President, here’s what the law is,’” Graham said. “You’ll have a conversation with somebody that’s pulling for you or wants to help you, you can say, ‘No you can’t, you’re not an American citizen.’"

“If somebody is trying to give you documents from a foreign government, you can’t take them,” Graham added.

Graham told reporters Thursday morning that Trump’s statement was “wrong” and a “mistake” and urged, “If a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value ... the right answer is ‘no.’”

Another Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the reaction within the GOP conference to Trump’s comments said lawmakers are hoping to quell the controversy as quickly as possible by condemning them.

“If we all say we disagree and that foreign assistance should be reported to the FBI, hopefully that will end it quickly,” said the lawmaker.

The GOP senator said that Trump was probably just trying to say that he would be openminded about listening to opposition research but did so “in his inartful way.”

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) emerged on Thursday as one of the most forceful of Trump’s Republican critics.

Romney, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, said it would “be wrong and unthinkable that any candidate for president would accept such information” that might influence an election from foreign sources.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioMcConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters GOP senator introduces bill to limit flow of US data to China GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week MORE (R-Fla.) said despite efforts by his colleagues to quickly put the damaging comments behind them, he expects them to reverberate in the news for the next several days.

“The net impact of it is that the media will have a lot to talk about, at least until the next statement,” Rubio, who ran for president in 2016, said.

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At the same time, Rubio said Republican condemnation of Trump’s interview with ABC News’s George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosLawmakers spar over upcoming Sondland testimony GOP rep on impeachment: 'I think the evidence is crumbling' Senate Republicans can acquit Trump — but they cannot defend his conduct MORE is unlikely to increase the chances of passing an election security bill, which Democrats are pressing for.

“It stirs up a lot of a chatter, but it doesn’t really change how anything works around here,” he said. “I don’t think it changes anyone’s views on election interference and I don’t think it changes how our law enforcement agencies are operating.”

Some Republicans, such as Sen. John CornynJohn CornynImpeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial MORE (R-Texas), have tried to defend Trump by arguing that Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Centrists change tone of Democratic race In 2020, democracy will be decided at the margins Michelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award MORE’s 2016 presidential campaign paid for work done by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to compile a dossier of negative allegations against Trump.

Graham also mentioned Steele in his comments to reporters, highlighting his interest in investigating.

But such arguments did little to shift the focus from Trump’s remarks.

Rubio said Russian or Chinese or other foreign intelligence agents are unlikely to approach Trump’s 2020 campaign with damaging information about former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Democrats release two new transcripts ahead of next public impeachment hearings Press: Ukraine's not the only outrage MORE or any other Democrat he might face in the general election.

What’s more likely, he believes, is that a foreign power seeking to influence the election will work through American political activists and media outlets.

“The likeliest way that a foreign intelligence agency would use information is not to go to a candidate. They are likelier to go to a media outlet and find some third-person cutout or just a political activist of some sort to provide information,” said Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

House Democrats led by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Key GOP senator: 'We need a breakthrough' on spending talks Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran MORE (D-Calif.) are trying to take advantage of the political opportunity by preparing legislation to secure future elections. It would prohibit campaigns from sharing material with foreign governments and require them to report foreign offers of assistance.

GOP lawmakers who face tough reelection races next year are scrambling to put distance between themselves and the president.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstProgressive group to spend as much as M to turn out young voters Overnight 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 Turkish media paints White House visit as Erdoğan triumph over Trump MORE (R-Iowa), a Democratic target in 2020, said she "wouldn’t do it” when it comes to accepting a foreign source’s offer of information on a rival.

“I wouldn’t trust intelligence coming from anybody else,” she said. “If it’s one of those things that if somebody is trying to engage with my campaign, I’d let the authorities know.”

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Progressive group to spend as much as M to turn out young voters This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry MORE (R-N.C.), who could also face a tough race, said, “I don’t know what he was thinking, but he did say if he thought it was suspect, he would call the FBI.”

“I would call the FBI immediately,” he said.

Tillis earlier in the day said that Clinton should have contacted the FBI in 2016 about the Steele dossier.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Tariffs threaten 1.5M jobs: Study This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry MORE (R-Colo.), another vulnerable incumbent up for reelection next year, said any candidate approached by a foreign power should “just say no.”

“I mean, turn it over,” he said.

The battle has left the Senate GOP playing defense.

Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTrump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising On The Money: US paid record .1B in tariffs in September | Dems ramp up oversight of 'opportunity zones' | Judge hints at letting House lawsuit over Trump tax returns proceed MORE (R-Tenn.) on Thursday blocked an effort by Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Klobuchar unveils plan to secure elections as president Trump officials extend deadline to allow companies to work with Huawei MORE (D-Va.) to pass by unanimous consent legislation that would require campaigns to report contacts by foreign operatives to the Federal Election Commission and the FBI

The legislation would require campaigns to monitor foreign contacts with campaign representatives and train employees about their legal obligations.

Blackburn argued on the floor that the reporting requirements of Warner’s Fire Act are “overbroad.”

She said “it would apply to door knockers. It would apply to phone bankers, down to any person who shares their views with a candidate.”

She later slammed Warner’s unanimous consent request as a “blatant political stunt.”

Warner appeared annoyed by the objection and Blackburn’s characterization of his bill and claimed her reading of the legislation was “not accurate.”

“The only thing that would have to be reported is if an agent of a foreign government or a foreign national offered something that was already prohibited,” he said.

Jordain Carney contributed.