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Republicans brush off Bolton's bombshells

Senate Republicans faced another Trump-related crisis on Thursday, a day after media outlets reported bombshell claims by former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump offered North Korea's Kim a ride home on Air Force One: report Key impeachment figure Pence sticks to sidelines Bolton lawyer: Trump impeachment trial is constitutional MORE in his new memoir, “The Room Where It Happened.”

Privately, however, GOP senators who spoke to The Hill expressed little doubt that what Bolton has written about his interactions with President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE are by and large true.

It didn’t come as a shock to them that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to buy American soybeans and other farm commodities to help him win reelection, or that he didn’t know that Britain was a nuclear power, or that he spent most of the time in his intelligence briefings airing his own views instead of listening to what experts had to say, or that he intervened to lighten penalties on Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.

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“I know John Bolton. I genuinely found him to be a straightforward [and] honest. The things that I hear that he reports being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true,” said one Republican senator who requested anonymity.

The lawmaker, however, added that Bolton is not very much liked in Washington because he is perceived as arrogant, which may explain why he’s not getting as much public support from Republicans as former Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisRejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs The GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction MORE, who also delivered a searing public critique of Trump earlier this month.

The senator called Bolton “condescending” and then rephrased the description as “very certain of his views.”

A second GOP senator criticized Bolton’s decision to air Trump’s laundry in a book published a few months before Election Day.

“I have a distaste for someone who leaves an administration and tries to make money off it in a sensational way,” the lawmaker said.

But the senator acknowledged: “At the same time, he was in and around” the president’s inner circle at the time of the described events and had a first-hand view that no one in Congress has.

Republican senators publicly fell into three camps.

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Some, such as Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Ron Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Senate coronavirus bill delayed until Thursday MORE (R-Okla.), questioned Bolton’s motives, noting he stands to make a lot of money by selling books and has publicly feuded with Trump since leaving the White House under a cloud of acrimony.

“This looks more like book sales than it does anything else,” he said.

Others, such as Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocratic centrists flex power on Biden legislation Ron Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Romney's TRUST Act is a Trojan Horse to cut seniors' benefits MORE (R-Utah) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Hillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships Senators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China MORE (R-Fla.), are raising concerns about some of the conduct detailed in Bolton’s book but acknowledge they have no way to verify his claims.  

And others, such as Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate rejects Sanders minimum wage hike Murkowski votes with Senate panel to advance Haaland nomination OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior reverses Trump policy that it says restricted science | Collins to back Haaland's Interior nomination | Republicans press Biden environment nominee on Obama-era policy MORE (R-Maine), Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE (R-Colo.) and 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.), are simply declining to comment.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSunday shows preview: Manchin makes the rounds after pivotal role in coronavirus relief debate Murkowski votes with Senate panel to advance Haaland nomination Interior Department reverses Trump policy that it says improperly restricted science MORE (R-Wyo.), one of the president’s outspoken defenders, said, “Every time I’ve been in a meeting with John Bolton, he wants to be considered the smartest guy in the room.”

“He thinks he ought to be president, Speaker of the House and chief justice of the Supreme Court all at the same time,” he said.

Barrasso said several of Bolton’s claims that have received a lot of media attention aren’t all that surprising.

“He makes claims that the president was concerned about his reelection. Tell me a president that’s not interested in his reelection,” he said. “He’s complaining that the president was trying to sell agriculture products in China. For Wyoming, we want him to be selling agriculture products in China.”

The strongest criticism Thursday came from Romney, who says he does not plan to vote for Trump’s reelection.

Asked about Bolton’s claim that Trump encouraged the Chinese president to go ahead and build concentration camps for Uighurs, a minority Muslim population, Romney said: “If that’s accurate, that would obviously be a reprehensible comment.”

Romney cautioned “we don’t whether that’s actually what happened” but added he has no reason to doubt Bolton’s claims.

“I think he’s a very credible person,” he said.

Romney noted that he was one of two Republicans, along with Collins, to vote for Bolton to testify at Trump’s impeachment trial.

“I wish we did have a trial with people testifying under oath, that’s one of the things I voted for,” he said.

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Collins told reporters that she has “started to” review Bolton’s claims but got into her car on the Capitol’s East Front after the last vote of the week and didn’t provide any reaction to media reports about Bolton’s book.

Gardner, who faces a tough reelection in November, declined to answer questions about Bolton’s claims because he had not yet reviewed them.

Asked if he Bolton should have been called to testify at the trial, Gardner told CNN that House Democrats made the decision not to subpoena the former national security adviser.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump promises to travel to Alaska to campaign against Murkowski GOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Senate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote MORE (R-Alaska), a moderate who said earlier this month she is “struggling” over whether to vote for Trump in November, said she doesn’t regret her decision to vote against subpoenaing Bolton to testify at the impeachment trial.

“I made the decision that I made at the time that I made it, and there’s no going back,” she said. “I don’t regret that decision. Like I say, there’s no going back.”

Rubio, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, indicated Thursday that he’s not surprised by Bolton’s claim that Trump intervened to lighten a penalty on the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE for evading sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

Rubio said it was “a big mistake” to weaken the penalty on ZTE.

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“I don’t think there was ever any dispute that part of the decision on ZTE was made as a way to de-escalate tensions with the Chinese,” Rubio said when asked about Bolton’s claim that politics factored into the ZTE decision.  

Rubio said the decision to lighten the penalty should be reviewed.

“I disagreed with that decision then and I still disagree with the decision to water down that penalty,” he said.

He said Bolton’s description of the decisionmaking process is “more explosive” and that “I have no way of knowing” if his version of events is entirely accurate.

Rubio didn’t seem shocked either by Bolton’s claim that Trump said it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela.

“I’ve never heard him say ‘cool.’ I know the president has been very forward-leaning on Venezuela policy and has talked about his belief that it could one day require stronger intervention than what we see now,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s news,” he added.