McConnell aims for unity amid growing divisions with Trump
Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error
Senate Republicans were left dumbfounded Thursday by President Trump's latest self-engineered controversy, a suggestion there might not be a peaceful transition of power after Election Day, which left his GOP allies on Capitol Hill scrambling for political cover.
GOP lawmakers expressed frustration that a week that had started so positively with the Senate Republican Conference quickly unifying ahead of a Supreme Court confirmation battle had turned into a circus.
"The president figured out how to take an overwhelmingly good week and change the subject? Shocking. I don't know what to say," said one senior Republican senator, referring to the dismay Republicans felt over what they see as Trump's latest unforced error.
"There's a chance he doesn't understand peaceful as a concept. There's a chance he thinks that means he's going to feel good about it if he's leaving. Who knows what he's thinking?" the senator added.
The GOP anger and irritation with Trump was particularly high given the intense battle for the Senate majority, which a number of Republicans see as in danger because of the president. The Supreme Court battle, Republicans believed, could help their shot at keeping the majority. The president suggesting there might not be a peaceful transition if he loses does not, in their view.
A second Republican senator made a pistol out of his index finger and thumb and pretended to shoot at his own foot.
"It happens so regularly," the lawmaker said, referring to the president.
Asked at a White House briefing on Wednesday if he would commit to making sure there is a peaceful of transferal of power after the election, Trump said: "We're going to have to see what happens. You know that I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster," referring to mail-in ballots.
"We want to get rid of the ballots," he said. "There won't be a transfer frankly, there will be a continuation."
The first Republican lawmaker said no one in the Senate GOP conference is really taking seriously the notion that Trump would refuse to leave office if he loses to Vice President Joe Biden in November.
But the lawmaker was just one of the GOP senators expressing befuddlement at what Trump was trying to get at.
"I don't know what the question was," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "I think I speak for 90 percent of the people in the country, we'll have a peaceful transfer of power. I don't know what context it was."
Senate Republicans are pleading for Trump to stay on message in the final month of the fall campaign.
"The more you stay on point and you don't create that kind of fodder for other conversations" the better, said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
When Trump starts engaging in speculation about a chaotic transition after the election or other topics that rev up critics, Braun says: "I don't know that that helps."
Braun thinks Republicans should put more focus on the economy, which he calls "our strong suit."
"We're not making a strong enough argument about what would happen if any of their policies get into place," he said, referring to former Vice President Joe Biden's agenda, which includes a plan to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought to get in front of the erupting controversy by tweeting a statement Thursday morning pushing back on Trump's comments.
"The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792," McConnell said in a statement posted online at shortly before the Senate opened its Thursday session.
Democrats, who had been on the defensive in the battle over a surprise Supreme Court vacancy, quickly went on the offensive Thursday by turning the focus on Trump's comments.
"The gravest threat to democracy right now does not come from any foreign capital, it comes from our own. The gravest threat to democracy in America is President Donald Trump," Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) declared on the Senate floor.
A wave of other Republicans, including vulnerable incumbents in tough races, came forward with disavowals.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is trailing her Democratic challenger in recent polls, tweeted: "One of the foundations of our democracy is the peaceful transition of power between administrations. That has been true throughout our history, and this year will be no different."
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who also faces a tough road to reelection, cited the peaceful transfer of power from Democrats to Republicans after the 2010 midterm election as a role model.
"It's a hallmark of our democracy. And I've spoken at length about it in the past about the continued need to use that as a settled democracy," he said.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was one of the few Republicans to criticize Trump directly.
"Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable," he tweeted Wednesday night.
Romney later declined to speculate about what motivated Trump to make his statement.
"That's all I got," he said.
Another forceful rebuttal came from Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who pledged that Republicans would stand up to Trump if he refused to leave office after Election Day.
"Republicans believe in the rule of law. We believe in the Constitution," he said.
Asked if Republican lawmakers would stand up to the president if Trump refused to hand over power if he lost the election, Thune said: "yes."
A third Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment candidly on Trump's remarks said the president appeared to be responding in kind to Democrats who say that Biden should be prepared to litigate the results after Election Day.
"He's worried about the situation we had with Sen. [Rick] Scott [R-Fla.] and Gov. [Ron] DeSantis [R] in Florida where a week later ballots kept appearing. We were apoplectic about it. They were about to steal the Senate race," the lawmaker said, referring to the 2018 Senate race in Florida, where the razor-thin margin of victory for Republicans triggered an automatic recount.
The lawmaker, however, said Trump "would have been better served had he stated it differently."