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 TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops 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 BidenBiden campaign raised M more than Trump in the month of June RNC, Trump campaign raised 1M in June Michigan shuts down most indoor bar service in bid to prevent virus resurgence 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 CruzTrump administration grants funding extension for Texas testing sites Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down GOP lawmakers join social media app billed as alternative to Big Tech MORE (R-Texas) referred questions about the whistleblower’s complaint to his office.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDoug Jones cuts pro-mask campaign ad: 'Our health depends on each other' Trump says he's 'all for masks' despite reluctance to wear one The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks 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 ThuneMcConnell: Trump shouldn't veto defense bill over renaming Confederate bases Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties GOP skeptical of polling on Trump 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 BurrBiden campaign adds staff in three battleground states Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? Trump asserts his power over Republicans MORE (R-N.C.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats hit Trump for handling of Russian bounty allegations after White House briefing Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Democrats face tough questions with Bolton 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 SasseBeijing: US 'oppressing Chinese companies' after Huawei, ZTE action Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties FCC formally designates Huawei and ZTE as national security threats 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 HurdKaren Bass's star rises after leading police reform push The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - States are pausing reopening Democrats release bilingual ads on police reform bill 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 ScaliseCheney clashes with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks GOP-Trump fractures on masks open up MORE (R-La.) saying Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse votes unanimously to extend deadline for coronavirus small-business loan program Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated MORE (D-Calif.) owed “an apology” to the American public for launching an impeachment inquiry.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyMcCarthy calls on Pelosi to condemn 'mob violence' after toppling of St. Junipero Serra statue The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus Cheney clashes with Trump MORE (R-Calif.) argued that Trump didn’t push Zelensky to investigate Biden but only to cooperate in Attorney General William BarrBill BarrBarr praises Seattle police chief as officers clear protest zone Judge strikes down Trump administration rule denying asylum to most migrants at southern border Supreme Court declines challenge to DOJ execution method 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 GrahamThe Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights Harrison goes on the attack against Graham in new South Carolina Senate ad Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police 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) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s report as grounds for impeachment.

But Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans 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 JohnsonGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties Postal Service boosted by increased use during pandemic: report 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 MurkowskiSenators will have access to intelligence on Russian bounties on US troops Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators push to limit transfer of military-grade equipment to police 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.