GOP battens down the hatches after release of Trump whistleblower complaint

Republican lawmakers are battening down the hatches on Capitol Hill as they face a barrage of questions about President TrumpDonald John TrumpKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Kaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court Louise Linton, wife of Mnuchin, deletes Instagram post in support of Greta Thunberg MORE’s communications with Ukraine, and whether the White House tried to cover it up.

While Republicans in the House have broadly backed Trump with a few exceptions, GOP lawmakers in the Senate on Thursday pulled back a bit on their defense in the wake of the release of a complaint that alleges Trump sought to enlist Ukraine in a politically motivated attack on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters George Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump MORE.

ADVERTISEMENT

After offering a stouter defense of Trump on Wednesday after the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, GOP lawmakers were more tight-lipped Thursday, saying they wanted to study the nine-page document.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump, Democrats risk unintended consequences with impeachment arguments Impeachment trial to enter new phase with Trump defense Jordan says he thinks trial will be over by next week MORE (R-Texas) referred questions about the whistleblower’s complaint to his office.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSchumer: Trump's team made case for new witnesses 'even stronger' The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power Senate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses MORE (R-Tenn.), a Senate institutionalist who voted on Wednesday for a resolution disapproving of Trump’s efforts to repurpose military funding to pay for a border wall, said he wants to wait and see what else develops.

“I’m waiting to see what the Intelligence Committee concludes about its investigation before I issue any judgments,” he said.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneNo. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Republicans take aim at Nadler for saying GOP senators complicit in 'cover-up' MORE (S.D.), who on Wednesday said he wouldn’t have brought up the subject of investigating Biden on a call with a foreign leader, on Thursday ducked out of Capitol en route to a two-week recess, telling reporters he still needed to read the complaint. 

One Republican senator said there’s trepidation about what may emerge, particularly over what steps senior White House officials may have taken to keep the transcript of Trump and Zelensky’s call from emerging.

An unnamed whistleblower in a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrMarsha Blackburn shares what book she's reading during Trump Senate trial GOP senator provides fidget spinners to Senate colleagues at lunch Juan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump MORE (R-N.C.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff Schiff pushes back: Defense team knows Trump is guilty MORE (D-Calif.) said that senior White House officials “intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript.”

These were actions that the whistleblower said “underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”

As things stand, the GOP senator said it’s highly unlikely Senate Republicans will vote for articles of impeachment. But the source said there’s some uneasiness about what else might emerge, especially as investigators delve into the question of whether Trump’s call was improperly designated as classified to keep it from becoming public.

“We’ll see where this takes us. It’s hard to imagine this turns out to be anything but a party-line vote,” the lawmaker said. “But we may come across some stuff embroiled in this question of how the transcript was marked classified."

“Was it improperly marked classified?” said the lawmaker. “Other things could come out.”

A senior Republican aide suggested that some GOP lawmakers are finding it tough to defend Trump’s behavior as laid out in the complaint.

“It’s a tough time to be answering questions right now,” the aide said.

One key development late Wednesday was the emergence of Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseTrump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president Commerce Department withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon pushback: reports  The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems to present case on abuse of power on trial's third day MORE (R-Neb.), who has received Trump’s endorsement for reelection, as a critical voice.

He warned that “Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons to say ‘there’s no there there’ when there’s obviously lots that’s very troubling there,” he told a small group of reporters.

In the House, Intelligence Committee member Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said Trump’s conversation with Zelensky was “not OK.”

“And I think it's disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript,” he said during an Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday.

Retiring Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdThe Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' House Democrats launch effort to register minority voters in key districts MORE (R-Texas), a former undercover CIA officer, called for a full investigation.

“There is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning. We need to fully investigate all of the allegations addressed in the letter, and the first step is to talk to the whistleblower,” Hurd tweeted on Thursday.

House GOP leaders presented an aggressive defense of Trump, with Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Cheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Trump welcomes LSU to the White House: 'Go Tigers' MORE (R-La.) saying Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiClinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views on misinformation Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president MORE (D-Calif.) owed “an apology” to the American public for launching an impeachment inquiry.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Cheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Mark Mellman: A failure of GOP leadership MORE (R-Calif.) argued that Trump didn’t push Zelensky to investigate Biden but only to cooperate in Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham Barr DOJ says surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Page lacked evidence Senators press DHS over visa approval for Pensacola naval base shooter Democrats sharpen case on second day of arguments MORE’s investigation of foreign interference in the 2016 election.

ADVERTISEMENT

“That is lawful, for us to look for another government to actually participate in an open investigation of what happened in 2016 because we want to make sure that never happens again,” he said. 

Some of Trump’s loudest allies in the Senate also offered a vigorous defense.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president MORE (R-S.C.) argued the transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky showed he didn’t do anything improper. He also dismissed the findings of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE’s report as grounds for impeachment.

But Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsKaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court Romney: 'It's very likely I'll be in favor of witnesses' in Trump impeachment trial Schumer: Trump's team made case for new witnesses 'even stronger' MORE (R-Maine), a pivotal swing vote in any Senate impeachment trial who also faces a tough reelection battle, said she needed to know more facts before passing judgment on whether the transcript was improperly marked classified.

“I don’t know the facts of what they did,” she said when asked about the White House handling of the transcript.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGraham vows Biden, Ukraine probe after impeachment trial GOP warns of 'drawn out' executive privilege battle over Bolton testimony  Senate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses MORE (R-Wis.), one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, initially told a reporter Thursday that he was concerned about claims that the White House tried to lock down the transcript.

But Johnson later told reporters that once he found out the White House released the full transcript of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky and were not holding back a more detailed account, his concerns were abated.

But the GOP senator who requested anonymity cautioned while it may turn out that White House officials acted improperly in classifying the transcript, the offense was more akin to a modest offsides penalty in football than a flagrant personal foul.

Many Republican senators on Thursday opted for what they saw as the safest route: keeping their mouths shut instead of defending the president.

GOP senators’ standard reply to questions about the allegations in the whistleblower’s complaint released Thursday morning was to say they were still studying it.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiKaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court Romney: 'It's very likely I'll be in favor of witnesses' in Trump impeachment trial Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff MORE (R-Alaska), another potential swing vote, said she wasn’t going to comment until she read the whistleblower’s complaint carefully.

“I’m going to do that one next — on my reading list,” she said.