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Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump

Criticism of President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE from former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Pentagon watchdog to probe extremism in US military | FBI chief warns of 'online chatter' ahead of inauguration | House conservative bloc opposes Austin waiver Conservative caucus opposes waiver for Biden's Pentagon pick Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE and Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiDemocratic lawmaker says 'assassination party' hunted for Pelosi during riot Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate MORE (R-Alaska) is ratcheting up pressure on other Republicans to push back on the president’s handling of nationwide civil unrest.

Mattis, who is as close as anyone to being universally respected on Capitol Hill, called out Trump on Wednesday for what he called the president’s lack of a “mature leadership” and accused him for intentionally trying to divide the nation.

Murkowski said she thought Mattis’s words were “true and honest and necessary and overdue” and suggested that it might embolden other Republicans who privately disagree with the president’s often controversial tone and conduct to speak out.

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“When I saw Gen. Mattis’s comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns we might hold internally and have the courage of our convictions to speak up,” she said.

Murkowski also admitted to “struggling” to decide whether to support Trump’s reelection even though she pledged to “continue to work with him” and "continue to work with this administration.”

The statement, made to reporters shortly before a noontime vote, exploded like a bombshell in the Senate and immediately became the top story of the day.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history MORE (R-Utah), a frequent critic of the president who voted for his impeachment, wouldn’t go so far as to comment on Mattis’s statement when asked about it by reporters and instead praised the former general as “a person of extraordinary integrity and sacrifice” and “a patriot who has sound judgment and capacity.”

After Murkowski’s endorsement of Mattis’s critique became headline news, Romney told reporters that his “letter was stunning and powerful.”

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP GOP in bind over Trump as corporate donations freeze MORE (R-Ohio), who has sought to keep his focus on legislation and not get caught up in Trump’s controversies, on Thursday as he was leaving the Capitol stepped up his criticism of the president’s tone in recent days.

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“I think the president has done a pretty good job on his prepared remarks because he has condemned what happened,” Portman told reporters. “He has applauded the peaceful demonstrations, his prepared remarks, and he has condemned the violence.

“But [it’s] his tone and words kind of in between those more formal presentations that have not unified people,” he said.

Asked whether the president should shift his tone, he said, “Yeah, I do.” 

“I think he’s probably getting that message from a lot of people,” he added.

The criticisms come amid polls showing Trump losing to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFear of insider attack prompts additional FBI screening of National Guard troops: AP Iran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries MORE in battleground states. Republicans in the Senate are worried that Trump could take their Senate majority with him if he does not begin to rebound.

Other Republicans on Thursday also faced questions on Mattis’s statement and some took what appeared to be evasive action to dodge reporters.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP For platform regulation Congress should use a European cheat sheet Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures MORE (S.D.), who earlier in the week said that Trump’s tweets warning that looters would be shot and “vicious dogs” could be unleashed on protesters were “not helpful,” managed to elude reporters who were frantically searching for him all day long.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-Maine), who on Tuesday criticized Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church after peaceful protesters were forcibly removed, was also asked to weigh in on Mattis.

The Maine senator, who has a tough reelection race, demurred by saying she hadn’t yet read Mattis’s statement but explained she had it and planned to examine it later. She did, however, declare she had “great respect” for Mattis.

When reporters looked for Collins after the final vote of the week to see if she had anything else to say about the former Defense secretary’s pointed criticism of Trump, the senator seemed to vanish from the Capitol. She managed to find a way back to her office without bumping into any of the half a dozen or so reporters looking for her.

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science and a longtime observer of the Senate who in the past advised Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyPompeo's flurry of foreign policy moves hampers Biden start Senior Democrat says Hawley, Cruz should step down from Judiciary Congress unveils .3 trillion government spending and virus relief package MORE (D-Vt.) and former Sen. Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history John Kirby to reprise role as Pentagon press secretary under Biden 10 former Defense secretaries call on Pentagon to stay out of election fight MORE (R-Neb.) and served as a scholar in residence in the office of former Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Memo: Democrats scorn GOP warnings on impeachment Trump, Biden face new head-to-head contest in Georgia The fight begins over first primary of 2024 presidential contest MORE (D-Nev.), said Murkowski’s statement Thursday may become a defining moment.

Baker compared Murkowski’s remarks to Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s (Maine) famous declaration of conscience almost exactly 70 years ago denouncing Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.).

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Chase Smith on June 1, 1950, delivered a landmark speech on the Senate floor denouncing McCarthy’s tactics of accusing political opponents of communist subversion.

She famously defended every American’s right to speak and protest and urged her fellow Republicans not to rely on what she called the “Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

“Politicians crave cover, political power. And Gen. Mattis gave cover to Murkowski and the combination of Mattis and Murkowski ought to be abundant cover for other Republicans who grouse quietly about Donald Trump to come out from the shadows and be much more plainspoken about their objections to him,” Baker said.

Baker said Republicans are leery of crossing Trump because “his base is their voters” and “they are painfully aware of that.”

A few hours after Murkowski delivered praised for Mattis’s rebuke, Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Health Care: Biden unveils COVID-19 relief plan | Post-holiday surge hits new deadly records | Senate report faults 'broken' system for insulin price hikes MORE (R-Iowa) announced he would put a hold on two of the president’s nominees.

Grassley said he would hold up Trump’s picks to head the National Counterterrorism Center and serve as undersecretary for arms control and international security until he got a better explanation from the White House as to why the president fired two inspectors general, Steve Linick and Michael Atkinson, the watchdogs of the State Department and intelligence community, respectively.

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When Trump fired Linick, who was investigating Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoBiden should expand contact between US and Taiwanese officials On The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits MORE for possibly using a staffer to run personal errands as well as the administration’s controversial arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Senate Republicans said he owed Congress a detailed explanation under the 2008 Inspector General Reform Act. But the White House largely ignored those requests with little repercussions until Grassley announced his hold Thursday afternoon. 

Al Felzenberg, a former Republican aide and a presidential historian who lectured for more than a decade at the University of Pennsylvania, said Murkowski’s statement is “the first time I’ve seen an independently elected Republican official go this far with the president.”

He said “other people may join her” and expressed puzzlement over why Romney, who voted to remove the president from office, hasn’t been more outspoken in criticizing Trump’s recent handling of the nationwide protests.

Felzenberg also asked why retiring Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Tenn.), who is seen as an honest broker in the Senate, or other retiring Republicans haven’t spoken out against Trump’s controversial statements and actions of the past week.

Alexander, when asked Thursday afternoon to comment on Mattis's critique, said “I was in a hearing all day and I haven’t had a chance to read his letter, which I’m going to do.”