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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren unveils Native American policy plan Live-action 'Mulan' star spurs calls for boycott with support of Hong Kong police Don't let other countries unfairly tax America's most innovative companies 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 GrahamTrump to meet with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move Top Foreign Affairs Republican: 'It would benefit all of us' for Omar, Tlaib to visit Israel 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 RomneyA US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces 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 RubioThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move Top Foreign Affairs Republican: 'It would benefit all of us' for Omar, Tlaib to visit Israel 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 StephanopoulosTrump allies defend attacks on Cummings amid Democratic denunciations De Blasio: Democratic debates should address 'why did we lose and what do we do differently' Nadler: Resolution condemning Trump's Cummings tweets 'wouldn't be a bad idea' 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 CornynThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy O'Rourke says he will not 'in any scenario' run for Senate O'Rourke says Trump 'terrorizing' immigrants in campaign relaunch speech MORE (R-Texas), have tried to defend Trump by arguing that Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down Trump seeks to project confidence on economy at New Hampshire rally 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 BidenPoll: Support for Sanders among college students reaches highest level since April Obama has taken active interest in Biden's campaign: report The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy 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 PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move Pelosi: Israel's Omar-Tlaib decision 'a sign of weakness' 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 ErnstGun control activists set to flex muscle in battle for Senate Businesses, farmers brace for new phase in Trump trade war Overnight Energy: Trump EPA looks to change air pollution permit process | GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule | Green group sues EPA over lead dust rules 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 TillisThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Gun reform groups to pressure GOP senators with rallies in all 50 states To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies 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 GardnerThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down Hickenlooper ends presidential bid 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 BlackburnTaylor Swift defends staying out of the 2016 election: 'I just knew I wasn't going to help' The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal Senate passes sweeping budget deal, sending it to Trump MORE (R-Tenn.) on Thursday blocked an effort by Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFacebook users in lawsuit say company failed to warn them of known risks before 2018 breach New intel chief inherits host of challenges Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces 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.