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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 BoltonDefense policy bill would create new cyber czar position Pressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Sunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday 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 John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech 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 MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Biden under pressure to remove Trump transgender military ban quickly Progressive House Democrats urge Biden against Defense chief with contractor ties 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.

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Republican senators publicly fell into three camps.

Some, such as Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordEthics experts ask Senate to investigate Graham's probe of mail-in voting The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Capital One - Pfizer unveils detailed analysis of COVID-19 vaccine & next steps GOP senators congratulate Harris on Senate floor 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 RomneySanders says he can't support bipartisan COVID-19 relief proposal in its current form Romney blasts Trump lack of leadership during pandemic: 'It's a great human tragedy' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal MORE (R-Utah) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by 'international norms' | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Trump campaigns as wild card in Georgia runoffs Rubio and Ocasio-Cortez spar on Twitter: 'Work more, tweet less' 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him MORE (R-Maine), Cory GardnerCory GardnerMark Kelly to be sworn in as senator on Wednesday Hillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities MORE (R-Colo.) and Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderMcConnell chokes up saying goodbye to 'friend' Lamar Alexander in floor speech Mark Kelly sworn in to Senate seat Longtime GOP lawmaker urges Senate to restore itself in farewell speech MORE (R-Tenn.), are simply declining to comment.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee 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.

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“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.

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.

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Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him 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.

“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.

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“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.