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Cracks emerge among Senate Republicans over Trump urging Ukrainian leader to investigate Biden

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/26/2019 Robert Costa
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Several Senate Republicans were privately stunned Wednesday and questioned the White House’s judgment after it released a rough transcript of President Trump’s call with the Ukraine president that showed Trump offering the help of the U.S. attorney general to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

One Senate Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said the transcript’s release was a “huge mistake” that the GOP now has to confront and defend — while the party argues at the same time that House Democrats are overreaching with their impeachment inquiry of Trump.

Three other GOP senators complained privately in discussions with The Washington Post that the White House erred by releasing the transcript, arguing that it sets a precedent for future presidents about disclosure of calls with foreign leaders and could be seen as a concession to Democrats.

Publicly, two senators expressed serious concerns about the revelation, as cracks have begun to emerge with GOP lawmakers privately discussing Trump’s conduct and their party’s political standing.

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“Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons and say there’s no ‘there’ there when there’s obviously a lot that’s very troubling there,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) told reporters after reviewing the whistleblower’s complaint. “. . . Democrats ought not be using words like ‘impeach’ before they knew anything about the actual substance.” 

Sasse, who opposed Trump’s 2016 candidacy, recently has spoken more favorably about Trump and earned the president’s endorsement in his reelection bid.

“It remains troubling in the extreme. It’s deeply troubling,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters Wednesday when asked about the transcript.

As Republican senators left a closed-door luncheon Wednesday, they were mostly supportive of the president and dismissive of the transcript, even as some lawmakers and their aides groused behind the scenes about the White House’s response. 

Mitt Romney wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) speaks to journalists before votes on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill on Monday. Romney called a rough transcript of a phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president “deeply troubling.” © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) speaks to journalists before votes on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill on Monday. Romney called a rough transcript of a phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president “deeply troubling.”

There were scattered statements about whether Trump handled the call appropriately, but any sense of alarm was muted.

“As a general rule, transcripts of phone conversations between heads of state should not be released. In this case, an exception had to be made,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), pointing out that some Senate Republicans had asked the president to release the document. He added that he was not troubled by its content.

“It’s a decision for the White House,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said when asked about the release, quickly calling out Democrats for “hating” Trump.

“It’s unprecedented that he’s released it and there are some ramifications for the office, but people were clamoring for all the information, and he’s giving it,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who attended a White House meeting Wednesday morning to review the rough transcript.

While many Republicans continue to dismiss Democrats’ impeachment efforts, the initial fault lines could foreshadow how Senate Republicans ultimately handle a trial, should the House impeach the president, according to several lawmakers and aides.

In the rough transcript of the July 25 call, Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr to investigate the conduct of Biden and offered to meet with the foreign leader at the White House after he promised to conduct such an inquiry.

Those statements and others in the phone call between Trump and Zelensky were so concerning that the intelligence community inspector general thought them a possible violation of campaign finance law.

In late August, intelligence officials referred the matter to the Justice Department as a possible crime, but prosecutors concluded last week that the conduct was not criminal, according to senior Justice Department officials.

Trump has acknowledged publicly that he asked Zelensky to investigate Biden’s son, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that came under scrutiny by authorities there.

Trump has denied doing anything improper, but lawmakers have raised concerns about his directive to freeze nearly $400 million in military assistance for Ukraine in the days leading up the phone call with Zelensky.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) echoed other Republicans in arguing there was “no quid pro quo,” adding, “while the conversation reported in the memorandum relating to alleged Ukrainian corruption and Vice President Biden’s son was inappropriate, it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”

Three Senate GOP aides said Wednesday that their bosses were unhappy with the White House’s decision and the sense that Republican lawmakers were being forced into the difficult position of defending Trump while contending with what many Democrats see as a problematic transcript.

But other Senate Republicans, allied with Trump, were dismissive. “Wow. Impeachment over this?” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted. “What a nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who like Graham faces reelection next year, said, “I’ve looked at the transcript; I don’t see anything there.”

One early divide among Senate Republicans is between the “Burr camp” and the “Johnson camp,” according to two senior GOP aides who were not authorized to speak publicly, referring to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

Burr’s faction of the Senate GOP has a darker, frustrated view of Trump’s handling of Ukraine, while Johnson has linked the Ukraine issue to his committee’s work into reviewing the launch of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails while serving as secretary of state.

During a closed-door Senate Republican lunch Tuesday, both Burr and Johnson underscored their own position in conversation with colleagues, who asked them whether their respective committees would launch investigations of Biden.

Burr said Wednesday said he had no interest in investigating the Biden-Ukraine angle.

“That’s not my lane, but I’m only focused on gathering the facts on this piece,” he said, referencing Russian interference in the 2016 election. Johnson said his committee has been conducting “information gathering and oversight” related to the 2016 campaign probe, which might now involve Hunter Biden.

“It just kind of morphs into that same cast of characters, what they were doing,” he said.

Others who have expressed concern about the whistleblower complaint and pushed for more disclosure include Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee who carries stature nationally in the party, even though he is still building relationships within the Senate, which he joined earlier this year.

Romney’s willingness to pressure the White House has irritated Trump advisers, who cheered the president’s tweet this week about Romney’s 2012 defeat.

“I’d forgotten I’d lost, so I appreciate the reminder,” Romney joked to reporters.

But Romney’s willingness to speak out has “given cover” to Senate Republicans who also want to speak out, even if more mutedly, one Senate GOP aide said, because Romney is taking the lead in asking pointed questions about Trump and the administration.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said, “Biden is the one who threatened Ukraine’s aid, not Trump, and that has to be investigated.”

The tensions between Senate Republicans who view the whistleblower complaint strictly as an intelligence matter and those who see it as part of a political “witch hunt” of Trump by Democrats are almost certain to continue, lawmakers and aides said, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) having to navigate those dynamics and hold his members together amid the tumult.

McConnell faces reelection next year and is focused on keeping his Senate majority as the GOP defends 23 seats to the Democrats’ 12.

McConnell’s member-driven approach was evident early Tuesday, when several Senate Republicans said they were unsure if McConnell would oppose the call by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to have the whistleblower complaint sent to the intelligence committees.

“I really thought Mitch would knock it down, because Chuck was putting it up. He hates everything Chuck does,” one veteran Republican senator said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “But he didn’t. He let Chuck’s resolution get through with unanimous consent.”

When the senator inquired about McConnell’s decision, he was told McConnell was following the requests from his members to receive more information.

McConnell also saw up close at Tuesday’s lunch how many Senate Republicans, while publicly rallying around the president, are asking the White House to share more information. Even Trump allies asked White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland, who attended the Tuesday lunch, to give more documents to Congress, according to aides and lawmakers present.

McConnell’s public message has been sharply partisan and far more predictable, calling House Democrats’ impeachment moves an “impeachment parade in search of a rationale” and driven by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “far-left conference.”

But McConnell is not yet preparing for a Senate trial, with some of his longtime allies holding out hope that impeachment fades in the House. McConnell’s associates said this week that he has not begun internal planning for an impeachment trial, logistically or politically.

“Zero. None. No discussions of a trial. You prepare for the probable, not the improbable. I just can’t imagine a universe in which they end up doing that,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said. “Nancy Pelosi is simply too shrewd to let things get out of control.”

Added Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.): “I don’t know how they’d handle it. I’m labor, not management.”

Democrats are looking ahead but remain unsure of whether Senate Republican support for Trump would ever crumble.

“An impeachment trial would be challenging, but the Senate is more than capable of rising to the occasion, and I hope my Republican colleagues would be capable of breaking their silence and stepping forward,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “This is truly a time of reckoning.”

robert.costa@washpost.com

Seung Min Kim in New York and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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