WASHINGTON ― Republican U.S. Senators didn’t have a lot of substantive things to say Monday about the news that President Donald Trump apparently asked the head of a foreign government to investigate one of his top 2020 rivals.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought to shape the party’s message early in the day when he lamented that Democrats had decided to “politicize” an allegation that the president may be corrupting U.S. foreign policy to help himself win an election ― itself a political act.
“Although we don’t know the substance of the allegations, there is speculation that it relates to our relationship with Ukraine,” McConnell said in a speech on the floor, without addressing Trump’s conduct laid out in the complaint.
Like McConnell, most GOP senators pointedly avoided criticizing Trump on Monday, maintaining they could not comment without more facts about the matter. Some downplayed the story entirely.
“The Democrats are cranking up the outrage machine again,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said. “They’re hoping they have something here. I just don’t see it.”
Last week, an inspector general for the intelligence community told Congress about an urgent whistleblower report about the president’s behavior toward a foreign head of state. The Trump administration is blocking lawmakers from seeing the document, but Trump himself has been volunteering details of a July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he repeatedly pressed Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump said Sunday, describing the earlier call with Zelensky. The president has not offered any evidence the Bidens did anything wrong in Ukraine, however.
Biden’s son sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the same time his father oversaw policy toward Ukraine as vice president. One of Trump’s personal attorneys, Rudy Giuliani, has acknowledged that he asked the Ukranian government to investigate the Bidens.
It is illegal for a campaign to solicit anything of value from a foreign government.
HuffPost asked Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) if he’s OK with the president asking a foreign government to help him win an election.
“Is that what he did?” Hawley asked, appearing to disagree with the premise of the question. “He asked them for help with an election? Can you send me that?”
Other Republicans said the Senate Intelligence Committee ought to have a chance to investigate the whistleblower’s claims away from the public eye. The panel may hear from Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who was appointed by Trump, as early as this week. Joseph McGuire, the acting director of national intelligence, will also appear before the House Intelligence panel on Thursday, a hearing that is expected to be closely watched by Democratic leaders under pressure to begin impeachment proceedings.
He asked them for help with an election? Can you send me that? Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.)
Part of the story is that the Trump administration withheld a promised $250 million worth of military assistance from Ukraine while pressing for an investigation into the Bidens, prompting some Democrats to accuse the president of committing an impeachable offense by using his administration to dig up dirt on a political opponent abroad. Trump has denied there was a quid pro quo, however, even as he continued to attack Biden over his work in Ukraine.
McConnell said Monday that he and his staff had repeatedly urged officials in the State Department and the Defense Department to hand over the aid since Ukraine is an ally in the geopolitical struggle with Russia. But he did not address why the administration put a hold on it in the first place.
“I was very glad to see the White House release security assistance to Ukraine,” he said.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she hoped a transcript of the president’s call with Zelensky would clear things up. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent critic of Trump, agreed, adding that it is “very important that the transcript and potentially as well the whistleblower come forward.”
Asked if it was appropriate for the president to be talking about his political opponents with foreign leaders, Capito said, “Probably not.”
But Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) declined to address the question entirely.
“I’m not going to talk about what’s appropriate or what’s not appropriate,” Ernst told HuffPost.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went furthest in criticizing Trump’s conduct on Monday, but he cautioned that more information was needed to make an assessment.
“I don’t believe he should have done it, but that in and of itself doesn’t make it an impeachable offense,” Rubio said when asked if the president ought to be bringing up Biden with the president of Ukraine.
But Trump’s apparent pressure on the Ukrainian government to go after Biden, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has unnerved even some centrist Democrats in the Senate who have been against opening a potentially divisive impeachment inquiry.
“I have been very reluctant to support impeachment up until now. I am giving some serious thought about my position,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters on Monday, adding that Trump has “fundamentally corrupted his office.”