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 TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House 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 BidenCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Top Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden spar over coronavirus response 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 CruzFlorida sheriff asks for new leads in disappearance of Carole Baskin's former husband after Netflix's 'Tiger King' drops Ted Cruz jokes about quarantine boredom, 'Tiger King' Trump faces mounting pressure to unleash Defense Production Act MORE (R-Texas) referred questions about the whistleblower’s complaint to his office.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSticking points force stimulus package talks to spill into Sunday GOP drafting stimulus package without deal with Democrats Senate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday 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 ThuneTrump's magical thinking won't stop the coronavirus pandemic Lawmakers brace for more coronavirus legislation after trillion bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Senate overcomes hurdles, passes massive coronavirus bill 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 BurrDOJ probing stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of coronavirus crisis: report GOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Stimulus bill to prohibit Trump family, lawmakers from benefiting from loan programs MORE (R-N.C.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCoronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner Texas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Schiff: Remote voting would not compromise national security 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 SasseMnuchin emerges as key asset in Trump's war against coronavirus House Republican urges Pompeo to take steps to limit misinformation from China on coronavirus How much damage? The true cost of the Senate's coronavirus relief bill 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 HurdGarth Brooks accepts Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song Texas kicks off critical battle for House control Gun control group plans to spend million in Texas in 2020 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 ScalisePelosi scrambles to secure quick passage of coronavirus aid House GOP whip team seeks to get Republicans behind Senate coronavirus bill 14 things to know today about coronavirus MORE (R-La.) saying Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMeadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House Pelosi floats undoing SALT deduction cap in next coronavirus bill Overnight Health Care: More states order residents to stay at home | Trump looks to sell public on coronavirus response | Judges block Ohio, Texas abortion bans | Dems eye infrastructure in next relief bill MORE (D-Calif.) owed “an apology” to the American public for launching an impeachment inquiry.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOvernight Health Care: More states order residents to stay at home | Trump looks to sell public on coronavirus response | Judges block Ohio, Texas abortion bans | Dems eye infrastructure in next relief bill Asian American lawmaker warns of fear of racism over coronavirus stigma Democrats eye major infrastructure component in next coronavirus package MORE (R-Calif.) argued that Trump didn’t push Zelensky to investigate Biden but only to cooperate in Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrBrooklyn man accused of lying about hoarding medical supplies, coughing at officers Juan Williams: Mueller, one year on States should plan now for November voting options 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 GrahamGraham: Pelosi comment on Trump is 'most shameful, disgusting statement by any politician in modern history' Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus 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 CollinsGOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus Senate eyes quick exit after vote on coronavirus stimulus package 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 JohnsonRemembering Tom Coburn's quiet persistence Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner GOP seeks up to 0 billion to maximize financial help to airlines, other impacted industries 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 MurkowskiGOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC Schumer: Senate should 'explore' remote voting if coronavirus sparks lengthy break Turning the virus into a virtue — for the planet 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.