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

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' 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 GrahamRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief House Democratic leaders back Shalanda Young for OMB after Tanden withdrawal 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 RomneyRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Romney's TRUST Act is a Trojan Horse to cut seniors' benefits Republicans, please save your party 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 RubioHillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships Senators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China DeSantis's rising GOP profile fuels 2024 talk 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 StephanopoulosKhashoggi colleague: 'Why are we making an alliance with a dictator?' Fauci on Johnson & Johnson vaccine: 'Just be really grateful' Portman on Trump's dominance of GOP: Republican Party's policies are 'even more popular' 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 CornynOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Senators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal MORE (R-Texas), have tried to defend Trump by arguing that Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton brings up 'Freedom Fries' to mock 'cancel culture' Edie Falco to play Hillary Clinton in Clinton impeachment series White House defends Biden's 'Neanderthal thinking' remark on masks 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 BidenTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot FireEye finds evidence Chinese hackers exploited Microsoft email app flaw since January Biden officials to travel to border amid influx of young migrants 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 PelosiOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Top Republican: 'Outrageous' to extend National Guard deployment at Capitol Progressives won't oppose bill over limits on stimulus checks 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 ErnstRepublicans demand arms embargo on Iran after militia strikes in Iraq Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal Democrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill 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 TillisMcConnell backs Garland for attorney general GOP senators demand probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths CNN anchor confronts GOP chairman over senator's vote to convict Trump 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 GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 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 BlackburnRepublicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal White House defends Biden's 'Neanderthal thinking' remark on masks Marsha Blackburn: Biden needs to 'rethink' comments about 'resilient' and 'resourceful' Neanderthals MORE (R-Tenn.) on Thursday blocked an effort by Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships On The Money: Senate votes to take up COVID-19 relief bill | Stocks sink after Powell fails to appease jittery traders | February jobs report to provide first measure of Biden economy Senators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China 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.