While some Republicans have joined Democrats in blasting President Donald Trump for saying that he would accept damaging information about a political opponent from a foreign government, there are many high-profile GOP lawmakers refusing to comment or accusing Hillary Clinton’s campaign of doing the same thing.
Special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence that Trump’s campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its interference in the 2016 election. But Trump’s recent comments ahead of the 2020 election revived criticism from Democrats and some Republicans that he is open to receiving dirt on his personal rivals from US foes.
The reaction across Congress has been swift, but for members of the President’s own political party, the responses vary from lawmaker to lawmaker. Many are refusing to comment while others accuse the 2016 Clinton campaign of behaving similarly – though there are clear differences between those examples. For other GOP lawmakers, the President’s comments were a regrettable misstep.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has positioned himself as a close ally of the President, said it was a “mistake” to accept such information from foreign influences, which he described as “growing not lessening.”
“If a foreign government comes to you as a public official and offers to help your campaign, giving you anything of value — whether it be money or information on your opponent — the right answer is no,” Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill.
When asked by ABC whether his campaign would accept information from foreign countries like China or Russia, or notify the FBI, Trump said, “I think maybe you do both.”
“There isn’t anything wrong with listening,” said Trump. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, (and said) ‘we have information on your opponent’ – oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
Trump said he’d “maybe” go to the FBI if he “though there was something wrong.” He rejected the view that accepting such dirt would be considered interfering in US elections. Trump said that “all” Congressmen accept “oppo research.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, pushed back on Trump’s assertion.
“So far as I know, we never received any information from any foreign government,” said Romney, who noted he ran for Senate twice, governor once and president twice. “And had we received any information particularly from a hostile government we would have immediately informed the FBI.”
Several Republican senators were more circumspect in their criticism of the president. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Armed Services committee, said that wasn’t “one of his best statements,” before trying to defend them as part of his “refreshing habit of saying what he thinks.”
“If you were to ask me, and I were in the middle of a campaign, someone comes up and says, ‘your opponent is a child molester, are you aware of that?’ Well, I would talk to anyone who comes up,” said Inhofe. “And I think that was the context in which he was responding.”
Others tried to avoid the question entirely.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee that is conducting an investigation into foreign interference in US elections, declined to comment.
Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, refused to answer multiple questions about the President’s comments on election interference. “I do not want to do any interviews on that subject,” he told a reporter. “Let’s be kind to each other. I do not want to do an interview on that subject, but I will talk to you about the attack in the Gulf of Oman this morning.”
As he walked to the floor for a vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stayed tight-lipped despite multiple questions about Trump’s comments.
But some Republican lawmakers were quick to respond, taking Trump’s comments as an opportunity to criticize the Clinton campaign, which indirectly financed a dossier created by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, that examined Trump’s ties to Russia. Graham said Democrats’ criticism of Trump’s comments should be met with “equal outrage.”
There are clear differences between Steele – who had previously been a trusted FBI informant – and an offer of dirt on Clinton coming from the Russian government. Before the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Donald Trump Jr. was told that a Russian lawyer could provide valuable information as part of the Kremlin’s effort to help Trump.
Another big difference: Russia was conducting an unprecedented attack on the US election, while Steele was trying to warn Americans about the attack. Trump campaign officials comingled with prominent Russians while the Kremlin was intervening in the election. The Clinton campaign indirectly paid Steele, who unearthed evidence of the attack and brought it to the FBI and tried to share it with the press.
Democrats seemed largely unified in condemning what Trump said.
“The President’s comments suggest he believes winning an election is more important than the integrity of the election,” added said Senate Democratic leader Schumer.
Trump “speaks for himself,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York. “No one agrees with him.”
CNN’s Marshall Cohen, Jeremy Herb, Manu Raju and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.