Senate Republicans scramble to contain fallout from Woodward bombshell

Senate Republicans hoping to go on offense this week found themselves instead playing defense once again because of controversial remarks by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE — this time to Watergate reporter Bob Woodward.

It was a familiar dilemma for GOP senators used to being chased by reporters over their thoughts on Trump’s latest furor, but in this case it came with terrible timing — eight weeks before an election in which the Senate is on the line and as they hoped to call attention to Democrats blocking a coronavirus relief bill Thursday on a procedural motion.

Privately, Senate Republicans expressed bewilderment over why Trump agreed to 18 interviews with Woodward, some of then happening as late as 10 o’clock in the evening.

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“Most of us say, ‘What the hell is he doing talking to Bob Woodward at 11 at night?’” said one GOP senator.

“He does a lot of things none of us understand,” the source added.

Trump told Woodward he intentionally downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 190,000 people in the United States, because he did not want to start a panic.

The remarks have been ripped by critics, who say Trump might have saved lives if he had much more consistently and loudly sounded the alarm about a virus that in private he acknowledged was much worse than the common flu.

Trump has defended his conduct this week, saying he was working as a cheerleader for the country and that it was right not to overly panic people. But some GOP senators aren’t buying the damage control.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiClub for Growth to spend million in ads for Trump Supreme Court nominee Pebble Mine CEO resigns over secretly recorded comments about government officials  Maryland's GOP governor says Republicans shouldn't rush SCOTUS vote before election MORE (R-Alaska), who earlier this year said she wasn’t certain she’d vote for Trump, conceded on Thursday that she was “very concerned” about the accounts she had read in the press.

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“Some of the things I find quite surprising and quite concerning. But again, I haven’t had an opportunity to read these full interviews, but some of the press snippets have been certainly very, very, very concerning,” she told reporters.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power The Memo: Trump's strengths complicate election picture MORE (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump on an article of impeachment in February, said the president should have leveled with the nation about the threat posed by the coronavirus when he was alerted by national security officials in January.

“I think we’re always better leveling with the American public and that maintains credibility rather than trying to tell them one thing when you believe another,” Romney said.

Other Republican senators have publicly downplayed the Woodward book and defended Trump, saying he took the coronavirus seriously and helped save lives.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFEC flags McConnell campaign over suspected accounting errors Poll: 59 percent think president elected in November should name next Supreme Court justice Mark Kelly: Arizona Senate race winner should be sworn in 'promptly' MORE (R-Ky.) in an interview with Fox News said officials in Washington knew the coronavirus would be dangerous.

“Well, I haven’t read the Woodward book, but we all knew it was dangerous. The president knew it was dangerous and I think took positive steps very early on, for which he should be applauded, not criticized,” he said.

The issue didn’t come up at conference-wide lunch meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, though Republican senators have discussed the matter in small private conversations.

A second Republican senator said colleagues were scrambling to try to understand the political implications of Woodward’s reporting less than two months from Election Day.  

“What they say to me is, ‘Did you see this?’ and 'What does it mean?'” the lawmaker said, characterizing conversations with colleagues.

Trump is behind Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Democratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle MORE in polls of key swing states that will decide the election, though the margins are close. The GOP has a 53-47 edge in the Senate, meaning Democrats could win the majority by taking the White House and netting three seats.

Some Republicans see the Woodward book as a Beltway story unlikely to make real waves in the election.

“I just wonder whose vote will be changed by a Bob Woodward book,” the second Republican senator said.

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“As Fauci said yesterday, basically none of us got this right. He basically said the president did not distort reality,” the source added, referring to Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Health officials tell public to trust in science | Despair at CDC under Trump influence | A new vaccine phase 3 trial starts Health officials tell public to trust in science Fauci scolds Rand Paul during tense exchange at hearing MORE, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci in late January said: “We still have a low risk to the American public, but we want to keep it at a low risk.”

Trump’s remarks about the coronavirus aren’t the only controversial comments in the Woodward book.

Woodward also quoted Trump telling his trade adviser Peter Navarro that “my fucking generals are a bunch of p------” because they cared “more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.”

Asked by Woodward if he was trying to “understand the anger and the pain, particularly, Black people feel in this country,” Trump responded: “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”

McConnell dodged questions about Woodward’s reporting at a press conference Wednesday that was intended to focus on an upcoming vote on the Republicans’ slimmed-down coronavirus relief bill.

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“I didn’t look at the Woodward book. I will later,” McConnell said when asked if Trump had put Americans in danger by not fully explaining the health threat. “That’s a question for the White House.”

Senate Republicans in tough races also avoided questions about Woodward’s reporting.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsClub for Growth to spend million in ads for Trump Supreme Court nominee Maryland's GOP governor says Republicans shouldn't rush SCOTUS vote before election The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November MORE (R-Maine) walked quickly into Thursday’s morning series of votes, flanked by an aide who shielded her from a reporter who yelled a question in her direction about Trump downplaying the threat of coronavirus.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Liberal super PAC launches ads targeting vulnerable GOP senators over SCOTUS fight Romney backs pre-election Supreme Court vote, paving way for McConnell, Trump MORE (R-Iowa) told reporters that she hadn’t read Woodward’s reporting, while Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Presidential polls tighten weeks out from Election Day Mark Kelly: Arizona Senate race winner should be sworn in 'promptly' New ABC/WaPost poll finds Trump edging Biden in Arizona, Florida MORE (R-Ariz.) also said she hadn’t reviewed what Trump reportedly said.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneOvernight Defense: Stopgap spending measure awaits Senate vote | Trump nominates former Nunes aide for intelligence community watchdog | Trump extends ban on racial discrimination training to contractors, military Remote work poses state tax challenges Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot MORE (S.D.), who occasionally criticizes Trump’s most provocative behavior, said Thursday that he had not paid much attention to the uproar caused by Trump’s comments to Woodward.

“I’m more concerned about the actions that were actually taken to address the crisis and I believe that the White House has worked with the Congress on several solutions — the CARES package and others — to get assistance out there,” he said.

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Thune said questions about Trump’s decision to downplay the severity of the virus “and who said what when is probably a question you ought to direct to the White House.”

Asked how he would grade Trump’s early response to the virus in January, February and March, Thune responded: “I’m not [going to] give letter grades or point grades. That’s not what this is about.”

“We are where we are and all of us have tried under very difficult circumstances to do the right things to help the country survive and recover,” he said. “Was everything perfect? No. Were there hiccups and speed bumps along the way? Yeah.”  

Jordain Carney contributed.