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

President TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away 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 GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill 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 Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill 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 RubioBreak glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships 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 StephanopoulosThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week Sunday shows - Jan. 6 investigation dominates Senate Republican 'not happy' with Pelosi plan to delay infrastructure vote 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 CornynSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division MORE (R-Texas), have tried to defend Trump by arguing that Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote 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 BidenFirst lady leaves Walter Reed after foot procedure Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News 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 PelosiCapitol riot defendants have started a jail newsletter: report On The Money: Biden asks Congress to extend eviction ban with days until expiration | Economic growth rose to 6.5 percent annual rate in second quarter Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure 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 ErnstGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund 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 Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands GOP senator credits Sinema for infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators 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 GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms 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 BlackburnBiden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Biden's misinformation crackdown spotlights partisan divide on content reform White House looks to cool battle with Facebook MORE (R-Tenn.) on Thursday blocked an effort by Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDemocrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks On The Money: Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds | Trump tells Republicans to walk away | GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden 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.