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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 TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 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 BidenObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Brad Pitt narrates Biden ad airing during World Series 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 CruzSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Democrats play defense, GOP goes on attack after Biden oil comments Quinnipiac poll finds Biden, Trump tied in Texas MORE (R-Texas) referred questions about the whistleblower’s complaint to his office.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSenate Health Committee chair asks Cuomo, Newsom to 'stop second guessing' FDA on vaccine efficacy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Two weeks out, Trump attempts to rally the base McConnell aims for unity amid growing divisions with Trump 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 ThuneSenators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight McConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session 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 BurrAs Trump downplayed the virus publicly, memo based on private briefings sparked stock sell-offs: NYT Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (R-N.C.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGreenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox Hillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats 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 SasseSweden bans use of Huawei, ZTE equipment in new 5G networks McConnell aims for unity amid growing divisions with Trump Cornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' 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 HurdTrump predicts GOP will win the House Changing suburbs threaten GOP hold on Texas Bottom line 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 faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats Cedric Richmond's next move: 'Sky's the limit' if Biden wins MORE (R-La.) saying Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Senators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day MORE (D-Calif.) owed “an apology” to the American public for launching an impeachment inquiry.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyRocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire Trump is out of touch with Republican voters on climate change The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Iran, Russia election bombshell; final Prez debate tonight MORE (R-Calif.) argued that Trump didn’t push Zelensky to investigate Biden but only to cooperate in Attorney General William BarrBill BarrPolice accountability board concludes that Seattle police officers used excessive force during encounters with protesters Trump hasn't asked Barr to open investigation into Bidens, McEnany says Seattle, Portland, NYC sue Trump administration over threat to pull federal money 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 GrahamTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day Lou Dobbs goes after Lindsey Graham: 'I don't know why anyone' would vote for him  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 CollinsTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Murkowski says she will vote to confirm Barrett to Supreme Court on Monday Biden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races 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 JohnsonSenators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day Two Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 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 battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Murkowski says she will vote to confirm Barrett to Supreme Court on Monday McConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session 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.