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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' 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 GrahamGraham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs Texas and North Carolina: Democrats on the verge? Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report 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 RomneyThe Memo: Five reasons why Trump could upset the odds Will anyone from the left realize why Trump won — again? Ratings drop to 55M for final Trump-Biden debate 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 RubioSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Bipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Trump's new interest in water resources — why now? 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 StephanopoulosAll fracked up: Biden's Keystone State breakdown The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Tipping point week for Trump, Biden, Congress, voters Pelosi: White House made 'unacceptable changes' to testing language during negotiations on coronavirus stimulus 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 CornynDallas Morning News poll shows Biden leading Trump in Texas Biden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in MORE (R-Texas), have tried to defend Trump by arguing that Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Trump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Clinton says most Republicans want to see Trump gone but can't say it publicly: report 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 BidenFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' 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 PelosiBrown says Biden's first moves as president should be COVID relief, voting rights Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to positive tests among Pence aides Pelosi dismisses talk of White House compromise on stimulus: They 'keep moving the goal post' 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 ErnstTrump looms over Ernst's tough reelection fight in Iowa Democrats lead in 3 of 4 Iowa House races: poll The Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden 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 TillisBiden and Trump neck and neck in three Southern states: poll 10 under-the-radar races to watch in November Pence adviser Marty Obst tests positive for COVID-19 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 GardnerTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Democrats seek to block appeal of court ruling ousting Pendley, BLM land plans 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 BlackburnSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Senate Judiciary to vote on subpoena for Twitter CEO next week Government efforts to 'fix' social media bias overlooks the destruction of our discourse MORE (R-Tenn.) on Thursday blocked an effort by Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Intel leadership urges American vigilance amid foreign election interference Intel officials say Iran, Russia seeking to influence election Senate Intel leaders warn of election systems threats 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.