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 TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' 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 BidenSupport for impeachment inches up in poll Overnight Defense: Trump's Syria envoy wasn't consulted on withdrawal | McConnell offers resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria | Diplomat says Ukraine aid was tied to political investigations Democrats say they have game changer on impeachment MORE.

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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 CruzPartisan squabbles endanger congressional response to Trump's course on Syria Trump urged to hire chief strategist for impeachment fight The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump's impeachment plea to Republicans MORE (R-Texas) referred questions about the whistleblower’s complaint to his office.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderGOP braces for impeachment brawl McConnell tightlipped as impeachment furor grows GOP senator: 'Inappropriate' to discuss opponents, but impeachment a 'mistake' 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 ThuneHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg would support delaying Libra | More attorneys general join Facebook probe | Defense chief recuses from 'war cloud' contract | Senate GOP blocks two election security bills | FTC brings case against 'stalking' app developer The Memo: Trump 'lynching' firestorm is sign of things to come Senate Republicans block two election security bills 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 BurrOvernight Defense: Trump's Syria envoy wasn't consulted on withdrawal | McConnell offers resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria | Diplomat says Ukraine aid was tied to political investigations McConnell introduces resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria decision Ex-CIA agent: Whistleblower's complaint 'should be considered on its merits' MORE (R-N.C.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe strange case of 'Dr. Trump' and 'Mr. Tweet' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump faces backlash for comparing impeachment to 'lynching' House Republican: Schiff 'should not be leading this whole inquiry' 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 Sasse NBA commissioner says China asked league to fire Rocket's GM Lawmakers set to host fundraisers focused on Nats' World Series trip Hong Kong protesters trample, burn LeBron James jerseys in wake of comments 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 HurdGOP lawmaker: Trump administration 'playing checkers' in Syria while others are 'playing chess' Sunday shows — Mulvaney seeks to tamp down firestorm over quid pro quo comments, Doral decision Hurd: No Ukrainian officials have told State Department 'they felt like their arms were being twisted' 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 ScaliseMcCarthy on Trump's 'lynching' comparison: 'That's not the language I would use' House rejects GOP measure censuring Schiff This week: Tensions flare over Schiff, impeachment inquiry MORE (R-La.) saying Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Democrats say they have game changer on impeachment Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg would support delaying Libra | More attorneys general join Facebook probe | Defense chief recuses from 'war cloud' contract | Senate GOP blocks two election security bills | FTC brings case against 'stalking' app developer MORE (D-Calif.) owed “an apology” to the American public for launching an impeachment inquiry.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Memo: Trump 'lynching' firestorm is sign of things to come McConnell: Trump lynching comment 'an unfortunate choice of words' White House spokesman: Trump didn't mean to compare his experience with 'darkest moments' in US history MORE (R-Calif.) argued that Trump didn’t push Zelensky to investigate Biden but only to cooperate in Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrBrennan's CIA a subject of Barr's review of Russia investigation: report Pelosi releases 'fact sheet' saying Trump has 'betrayed his oath of office' Federal prosecutors interviewed multiple FBI officials for Russia probe review: report MORE’s investigation of foreign interference in the 2016 election.

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“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 GrahamGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Overnight Defense: Trump's Syria envoy wasn't consulted on withdrawal | McConnell offers resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria | Diplomat says Ukraine aid was tied to political investigations Partisan squabbles endanger congressional response to Trump's course on Syria 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 MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network MORE’s report as grounds for impeachment.

But Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCNN: Biden likened Clinton impeachment to 'partisan lynching' in 1998 The Memo: Trump 'lynching' firestorm is sign of things to come Susan Collins calls on Trump to retract tweet comparing impeachment inquiry to 'lynching' 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 JohnsonAmbassador Gordon Sondland arrives on Capitol Hill for testimony in impeachment inquiry GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate Sondland could provide more clues on Ukraine controversy 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 MurkowskiMulvaney defends decision to host G-7 at Doral: Trump 'considers himself to be in the hospitality business' Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe 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.