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Republicans show signs of discomfort in defense of Trump  

Republicans, even as they generally show support for President Trump, are showing signs of discomfort amid an impeachment fight that has engulfed the country. 

The battle over Trump’s actions toward Ukraine marks the biggest test to date for Republicans, who are juggling the president’s demand for loyalty with questions about his push for a foreign government to investigate a political rival.

While the party has largely rallied behind him against the Democrats’ impeachment push, there are some signs of cracks just days into the scandal that is likely to dominate the rest of 2019.

{mosads}The strongest criticism, unsurprisingly, is coming from a cohort of GOP pundits, 2020 rivals and Republican governors, who have less to lose than their congressional counterparts by going toe-to-toe with Trump. 

Former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who is running against Trump for the GOP’s 2020 nomination, told CNN on Friday that it was “quite literally like he’s giving his middle finger to the American people.” Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, another GOP hopeful, said Trump’s actions on Ukraine were “grounds for removal from office.” 

A slew of pundits — including The New York Times’s David Brooks and Bill Kristol, a prominent Trump critic — have admonished Trump. And two Republican governors — Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker — have thrown their support behind an impeachment inquiry.

Baker called the allegations against Trump a “deeply disturbing situation” and said it was “the proper role and responsibility for Congress at this point is to investigate it.” 

Trump and the White House can probably shrug off such criticisms, saying they are coming from opportunists, fringe candidates or Republicans representing blue states. 

But some of the other more measured remarks about the unfolding Ukraine story that are coming from Republican lawmakers may be getting their attention. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters when asked about Trump pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to help dig up dirt on his potential 2020 opponent that he didn’t “like seeing that.”

“I just think the idea of a conversation like that,” he said. “I know this president operates in different ways … but you know, obviously, like I said before, it’s not something I would bring up. But at least the suggestion about what was proposed there … is still not some place I would go.” 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, called Trump’s actions “troubling,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said the phone call was “very concerning,” and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), after viewing the whistleblower complaint, warned Republicans against “rushing to circle the wagons to say there’s no there there when there’s obviously lots that’s very troubling there.”

In the House, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) on Friday became the first House Republican to support an impeachment inquiry, though he made it clear he does not back impeachment itself.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) used a public hearing to knock the Democrats for moving forward with impeachment but also called out Trump during the wall-to-wall coverage. 

“I want to say to the president this is not OK. That conversation is not OK. And I think it’s disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript,” he said while acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. 

After The Washington Post reported that Trump said the whistleblower was “close to a spy,” GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who has refrained from commenting on impeachment, pushed back on the president’s comments, calling them a “gross mischaracterization of whistleblowers.” 

Even as Trump has dismissed the whistleblower complaint as a “witch hunt” and referred to his call with Zelensky as “perfect,” the Senate unanimously passed a resolution asking for him to turn the complaint over, and the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee has already started its own investigation. 

{mossecondads}Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and the committee, said after briefings with Maguire and the intelligence community’s inspector general that he was “not ready to make any conclusions.” 

“We’re committed to gather the information before we reach conclusions. Other people who don’t have this responsibility can reach conclusions right away,” he said, adding that he wanted and expected the committee to meet with the whistleblower. 

The signs of GOP wariness about aligning too closely with Trump come even as most Republicans have pivoted quickly to argue that House Democrats are overplaying their hand by starting the formal impeachment proceedings, questioned the validity of the whistleblower behind the complaint, or even floated investigating former Vice President Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden. 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) called the partial transcript a “nothing burger,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) suggested the whistleblower complaint was “hearsay” and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) questioned if individuals who shared information with the whistleblower were leaking classified information. 

But some Republicans have suggested members of their party are standing by Trump not because they support him but because they are afraid of a high-profile break with the president, who is known for relishing public feuds and lashing out at his critics. 

Former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was one of Trump’s most vocal critics while in the Senate, said he personally wasn’t a fan of impeachment but predicted that 35 of his former GOP colleagues would vote to impeach Trump if they could do so as part of a secret vote. 

“Anybody who has sat through two years, as I have, of Republican luncheons realizes that there’s not a lot of love for the president,” Flake said during an interview with NPR’s “Here and Now.” “There’s a lot of fear of what it means to go against the president, but most Republican senators would not like to be dealing with this for another year or another five years.”

Asked why he was one of the only Senate Republican criticizing Trump, Romney also appeared to suggest that some of his colleagues were making a political calculation. 

“There’s such enormous power associated with being the party in power, both in the White House as well as in the Senate and the House,” Romney said during the Atlantic Festival. “I think it’s very natural for people to look at circumstances and see them in the light that’s most amenable to their maintaining power and doing things to preserve that power.” 

Tags Ben Sasse Bill Weld Donald Trump Impeachment Jeff Flake Joe Biden Joe Walsh John Cornyn John Thune Joseph Maguire Lisa Murkowski Mark Amodei Mike Turner Mitt Romney Ron Johnson Roy Blunt Susan Collins Tim Scott Ukraine William Weld
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