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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 adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden 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 MurkowskiTrump administration denies permit for controversial Pebble Mine Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism The Memo: Trump election loss roils right 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 RomneyThe Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump Biden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Paul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' 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 McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on 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 adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad 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 FauciUS COVID-19 cases reach past 13 million Fauci: Pandemic likely won't improve by Christmas, New Year's Vaccine skepticism emerges as early test for Biden 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 CollinsTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism The Memo: Trump election loss roils right 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 Memo: Trump plows ahead with efforts to overturn election More conservatives break with Trump over election claims Peggy Noonan: 'Bogus dispute' by Trump 'doing real damage' MORE (R-Iowa) told reporters that she hadn’t read Woodward’s reporting, while Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump nominee's long road to Fed may be dead end McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol McSally's final floor speech: 'I gave it my all, and I left it all on the field' MORE (R-Ariz.) also said she hadn’t reviewed what Trump reportedly said.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names 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.