Soon after Donald Trump sparked his latest all-consuming controversy, Lindsey Graham spoke to the president and urged him to rethink his willingness to use foreign opposition research against his political opponents.
“The law is pretty clear. You can’t take anything of value from a foreign government,” Graham said he told Trump. “He says, ‘I didn’t say I did.’ I said: ‘Sitting down and talking to somebody’s not a crime, but it’s probably not a good idea. … I don’t agree with you.’”
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Asked whether Graham’s comment got through to the president, the South Carolina Republican replied: “He understands where I’m coming from.”
As a close Trump ally, Graham’s exchange punctuated the alarm that senior Republicans have with Trump’s comments that he’d likely take foreign dirt if offered and would “go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong.”
Many Senate Republicans are now moving swiftly to distance themselves from Trump’s willingness to use foreign opposition research against his political opponents, even as Trump dug in further on Thursday on Twitter.
Though senators said that being offered campaign fodder on opponents is simply a way of life in politics, they pointedly refused to endorse Trump’s remarks.
“Accepting the work product of a foreign government or the effort of a foreign government to try and influence an election of one candidate or another? It simply strikes at the heart of our democracy,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said in an interview. “It’s wrong. It’s antithetical to our democratic principles.”
“I was just surprised he wouldn’t say he would immediately turn it over to FBI or DOJ,” added Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a leading proponent of election security legislation. “There are going to be international conversations all the time. There’s no way to avoid that … but the natural thing is to be able to turn it over”
Several senators up for reelection vowed to call the FBI immediately if they received such information.
“You have to report it to authorities. Generally speaking, it’s a part of, in the case of like Russia, it’s an effort to disrupt our elections,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is up for reelection and working to stay close to Trump amid a primary challenge. “My first call would be to the FBI, my second call would be somebody to corroborate the information.”
Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), one of the most vulnerable senators in the 2020 cycle, said foreign opposition “should be turned over to the FBI, plain and simple.” And Sen. Joni Ernst, another incumbent on the ballot next year, also put daylight between her and Trump.
“I would not trust information coming from another country. I wouldn’t do it,” the Iowa Republican said. “I can’t speak for him, but I wouldn’t want it. I’d definitely alert the authorities.”
Still, most stopped short of calling out Trump by name despite some private anger over the president’s comments. Republicans seemed to view the firestorm as a temporary one that will pass given Trump’s penchant for changing the media narrative.
After a long pause, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that “any advice I have for the president I’ll give it to him in private.”
“Opposition research is obviously at the root of the Russian active measures campaign,” Cornyn says. “We’re all concerned about the role foreign countries have in our elections both in campaigns and sowing discord and dissension among Americans on social media and otherwise. I’d rather just have Americans participate in American elections.”
Democrats lit into Trump’s comments on Thursday, while also offering harsh words for their GOP colleagues. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) tried to pass legislation on Thursday afternoon requiring candidates to report election interference, but Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) objected.
“How disgraceful,” fumed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) afterward.
The party is furious over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unwillingness to pass legislation intended to crack down on election interference, with Schumer reviving attempts on Thursday to pass the bipartisan bill.
“Let’s count how many of them stand up and say he’s wrong,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) of Trump. “You can usually do that on one hand.”
Yet Republicans were clearly irked that Trump whiffed at what they saw as a softball in an interview with ABC on the very topic that fueled former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. The interview disrupted what would have been a quiet day at the Capitol as the debate over Trump’s comments consumed Washington.
After Trump said “there isn’t anything wrong with listening” to a foreign government that has dirt on an opponent, some Republicans said it’s a slippery slope between accepting such information and doing something illegal.
“You don’t ever want to take foreign money, that’s illegal. And the next route to money is information,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “So if you take information from somebody that’s foreign and it’s involved in your campaign, you’re inviting the risk of inviting foreign money into your campaign.”
Some House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), tried to defend Trump and accused Democrats of taking inappropriate actions.
But no senators interviewed for this story would wholeheartedly back up Trump. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla) came closest, insisting that not only would he refuse such information, but Trump would too — despite the president’s comments.
Otherwise, defense was in short supply.
“I believe the appropriate response if the president or any other federal presidential candidate is approached by a hostile … government with an offer of assistance is: Call the FBI,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.)
“I would not do it and I would encourage everyone else not to do it,” agreed Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
James Arkin contributed to this report.