02:47 - Source: CNN
Trump: I didn't pressure Ukraine, but I could have
CNN —  

Senate Republicans Monday avoided criticism of President Donald Trump’s conduct over the handling of a controversial whistleblower’s complaint, with one prominent senator even suggesting the whistleblower is a “leaker” who should be criminally investigated.

It’s the latest example of how Republicans are extremely reluctant to criticize the leader of their party even in the face of a growing controversy with many outstanding questions.

The tone was set by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, when he opened the chamber floor and blasted Democrats for what he said was a politicization of the issue before the facts were known.

McConnell also refused to tell reporters if he believed the formal whistleblower complaint that’s being held back by the administration should be made available to Congress or if Trump was wrong to discuss with the Ukrainian President possible investigations of Joe and Hunter Biden. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.

“Is it a whistleblower or is it a leaker, I don’t know which,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and member of the GOP leadership and Intelligence Committee, who said the matter may fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice for prosecution, not Congress for oversight.

Cornyn sharply pushed back when a reporter questioned why the senator thinks the person who filed a complaint with the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General is not an actual whistleblower.

“What makes you think he is?” Cornyn asked.

Even Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who chairs the Intelligence Committee, which is taking the lead on unpacking the allegations for the Senate, suggested he’s not sure if the charges involve the intelligence community.

“I don’t even know if the complaint even deals with the Intelligence Community,” he said before sides-stepping questions about the appropriateness of Trump pressing the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens.

“Talk to him,” is all Burr would say, referring to Trump.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican senator from North Dakota, downplayed the President’s conversation with Ukraine’s President.

“I think as is often the case, it’s a lot of hysteria over very little,” Cramer said.

As did Sen. Chuck Grassley, the most senior GOP senator who has a long history of advocating for and protecting government whistleblowers.

When Grassley was asked about Trump acknowledging that he brought up Biden in a call with Ukraine’s President, he responded by turning the focus to Biden, saying, “What you’re asking me, you could ask me the same question, was it appropriate what Biden did?”

Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said he doesn’t think Trump “should’ve done it” when asked about the President’s phone call urging Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.

“I don’t think he should’ve done it but that’s a far cry from what some people around here are claiming to know as fact that frankly we don’t know as fact,” Rubio said, adding that people are talking about impeachment so much the term has “lost all meaning.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican of Wisconsin who spoke to the President about why aid for Ukraine had not been appropriated yet for the upcoming year before visiting Ukraine earlier this summer, said Trump told him he was evaluating the funding because “he was concerned about corruption.”

Johnson said he believed that was a “legitimate concern.”

Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, was asked if he is concerned some GOP senators will try to refer the whistleblower matter to the Justice Department for prosecution of a leaker of classified information:

“This is an extraordinary moment. We’re seeing our country turn into a banana republic. Republicans better be careful what they wish for because a Democratic president could use the same tools Donald Trump is to turn the White House into one big extension of his reelection campaign,” Murphy said.

“If that’s the direction they take, attacking the whistleblower, trying to coverup this corruption, it’s a really, really said day for the country,” he added.

CNN’s Sam Fossum contributed to this report.