On Thursday morning, it seemed like alarm was rising in the GOP over a whistleblower report that President Donald Trump sought to pressure a foreign government into investigating a political rival and then cover it up.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a conservative usually aligned with Trump, said he would “not be happy” to learn that the White House was restricting records of the call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. Retiring Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) stated succinctly that “there is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning.”
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But just a few hours later, both men effectively muted their concerns. Johnson said he’d heard from the White House that the call summary released on Wednesday was complete and that his “concerns were satisfied.” And despite having a high-profile opportunity to interrogate the acting Director of National Intelligence at a House Intelligence Committee hearing, Hurd uttered nothing the rest of the day to expand upon his angst.
Meanwhile, most GOP lawmakers stayed mum, underscoring lawmakers’ squeamishness about what’s turning into a crucial moment for the Trump presidency. And even as some Republicans try to put a little daylight between them and Trump, they’re still unwilling to wholly break with him.
A handful of GOP lawmakers have evinced concern about the president’s call with Ukraine: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) found it “troubling.” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has called it “inappropriate.” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said on Thursday, “I want to say to the president, ‘This is not okay. That conversation is not okay.’”
But even uncomfortable Republicans are so far making clear they aren’t standing with the Democrats (though Romney has not outright dismissed the House’s impeachment inquiry). While they wouldn’t have brought up investigating former Vice President Joe Biden with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, so far Republicans don’t think it’s a high crime or misdemeanor that could lead them toward impeachment.
“No one has shown me that there was a law that was violated,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) in an interview. “Would I say things the way he said them? No. I don’t, OK? But this guy got elected president. Let him be president.”
Scott and Johnson were among the few Republicans willing to talk about the whistleblower complaint, which lays out allegations that Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
A surprising number of Republican senators claimed to have not read the whistleblower complaint by Thursday afternoon as the Senate let out for a two-week recess, including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who found the transcript provided by the White House on Wednesday “troubling to the extreme.”
“I have been asked about it. I haven’t seen it yet,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) “I hope to. I’ve got to take the train north and I’ll try to read it up there.”
“I’ve been in an appropriations hearing literally all morning,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said on Twitter that the whistleblower complaint raises “important questions,” but declined to take questions on the matter in person.
The GOP has spent the week stumbling around the Ukraine scandal. First they wanted to see the transcript, then the whistleblower report, then talk to the intelligence chief himself. For many, it all amounted to a way to stave off answering for a president with whom most have long had an uneasy relationship. By Thursday afternoon, the mission was largely accomplished: The Senate had gone home, with the House following on Friday.
But there was also an air of seriousness in the Capitol after the nine-page complaint landed on Thursday morning. Some of those following the issue most closely demurred when asked about such a fast-moving story and with the prospect of an impeachment trial looming in the Senate in the coming months.
“I’m not discussing it. We’re working on it now in the Intelligence Committee,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “Important questions are being raised. I want answers for them. And when I’m ready to talk about it I will.”
Of course, a number of Republicans instinctively sided with the president. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said the complainant is “not a whistleblower.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said “the guy or gal doesn’t know crap about what happened.”
Asked if the president’s behavior was defensible, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a close Trump ally, said: “Yes. What in this case rises to impeachment?”
The California Republican went on to argue at his weekly news conference that Trump simply asked Ukraine to open up an investigation into corruption, “which is lawful,” he said. McCarthy also swatted down questions about whether there would be any political backlash for Republicans who stand by Trump.
“I don’t care about politics anymore,” McCarthy said. “I care about this country, I care about the fiber of who we are, and I care about this country.”
Other Republicans, however, were far more careful in their responses, making attempts to express discomfort over the call without directly dinging Trump for it.
The responses from “concerned” Republicans made clear that Trump’s firewall of support on Capitol Hill is still standing firm, even as the latest crisis engulfs the White House.
“I’m not sure I would have engaged in the conversation… If I were president, I wouldn’t have done that,” said Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), a former federal prosecutor and member of the moderate Tuesday Group. “But I don’t know what the crime could be.”