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Senate Republicans dodge questions on Trump-Ukraine whistleblower complaint

While in New York on Sept. 23, President Trump said he never pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son. (Video: The Washington Post)

Senate Republicans on Monday were largely mum on whether Congress should investigate whistleblower allegations that President Trump pressured the leader of Ukraine for help in his 2020 reelection bid, with some ignoring questions on the matter while others disparaged the individual who raised the alarm.

Trump suggested on Sunday that he mentioned former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, on a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July. But Trump has denied that he pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden, who is leading in polls for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, in exchange for military aid.

The revelations have mobilized Democrats in the House, which their party controls, with many members escalating their calls for impeachment proceedings against Trump. A trio of House committee chairs on Monday threatened to subpoena Trump for documents related to his alleged efforts to pressure Zelensky.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Sept. 23 called for an intelligence committee review of an intelligence community whistleblower complaint. (Video: U.S. Senate)

But so far only one Republican in the Senate, Mitt Romney of Utah, has voiced concern about the president’s alleged actions. Romney tweeted on Sunday that if Trump “asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme.”

Trump appeared to take a swipe at Romney on Monday night by tweeting a video of news reports on then-GOP presidential nominee Romney’s concession to Barack Obama in the 2012 White House race, with shots from his own election in 2016 woven in.

As they returned to the Senate on Monday, most Republicans instead dodged questions about the whistleblower complaint or said that it is an issue for the Senate Intelligence Committee to address. Some, such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), cast doubt on the allegations against Trump.

“Is that what he did?” Hawley said with apparent sarcasm when asked by HuffPost whether he believed it would be appropriate for the president to ask a foreign government for help winning an election. “He asked them for help with an election? Can you send me that?”

In a tweet, Hawley later accused the reporter of having a “partisan agenda.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) declined to say whether he had concerns about the allegations against Trump.

“I’m not doing any interviews right now,” Sasse said, according to Vice News. He noted that the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which he sits, is planning further briefings on the topic.

Asked a second time whether he had any concerns about Trump’s actions, Sasse replied, “You’re welcome to talk to James in my office.” A onetime vocal critic of Trump, Sasse has since tempered his views — and won the president’s endorsement as he seeks reelection in 2020.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) disputed the use of the word “whistleblower” to describe the person who revealed Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.

“What makes you think he is?” asked Cornyn, a staunch Trump defender who was previously the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. He suggested that while the complaint could fall within the jurisdiction of the Senate Intelligence or Armed Services committees, it could also be up to different parts of the Trump administration, such as the Justice Department or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The reactions from Republicans on Monday underscored that even if House Democrats were to go forward with impeachment proceedings against Trump, the process would go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Democrats say asking Ukraine to find damaging information on a potential 2020 rival could amount to another attempt to involve a foreign power in U.S. elections. Intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, a claim the president denies.

Asked about Cornyn’s dismissal of the whistleblower as a “leaker,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) responded with exasperation.

“What a disaster,” said Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who met with Zelensky in Ukraine in early September. “This is a head-shaking moment for me, that Republicans don’t give a damn about the national security of this country and are willing to let the president get away with this fundamental corruption.”

He added: “If that’s the direction they take — attacking the whistleblower, trying to cover up this corruption — it’s a really, really sad day for the country.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) mainly kept his focus on Biden, but he also suggested that Trump should release more details about his call with Zelensky.

“I would urge him to continue to be as transparent as possible and tell us as much as he can without compromising executive privilege, so that we can understand what happened,” Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt.

“I believe that President Trump is going to blow you away with his willingness to disclose and be transparent about this phone call, because I think he did nothing wrong, and he has nothing to hide,” he added.

Even Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), co-founder of the bipartisan Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, steered clear of addressing the allegations directly. In a statement, Grassley chided Democrats and the media for “rampant speculation” but made no mention of Trump.

“Going forward, it’s important to respect the law and the whistleblower’s confidentiality while we gather the facts of the case,” Grassley said. “And, of course, transparency is always the best policy so long as we don’t endanger national security.”

Later, in an exchange with reporters, Grassley declined to say whether he believes it is appropriate that Trump brought up Biden in his phone call with Zelensky.

“You know, what you’re asking me, you could ask me the same question about — was it appropriate what Biden did? . . . You ought to ask the same at the same time,” Grassley said, echoing Trump’s attacks against Biden and his son, Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that Trump pushed Zelensky to investigate.

Other Republicans, such as Sens. Joni Ernst (Iowa), John Thune (S.D.), Rick Scott (Fla.), Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.) either declined to comment or emphasized the need to “get the facts out” before opining on the matter.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who sits on the Intelligence Committee and is facing a tough reelection battle in 2020, said she believes the whistleblower complaint must be turned over to Congress. The panel is meeting this week to hear from intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, she added. Atkinson testified behind closed doors to members of the House Intelligence Committee last week.

“The law is clear that if the inspector general of the intelligence community receives a whistleblower complaint that the IG deems is urgent, that that is to be reported to the leaders of the intelligence community,” Collins said. “And I very much appreciate the fact that the chairman has decided that the entire committee should be briefed, not just the chairman and vice chairman.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, said he believes Trump was wrong to have raised Biden in his call with Zelensky. But he dismissed calls for the president’s impeachment and said that so far no evidence has emerged of a quid pro quo offer by Trump of military aid in exchange for investigating Biden.

“He simply raised the issue of Biden, and I don’t believe he should have done it,” Rubio said. “But that in and of itself is not an impeachable offense, as some people claim. Now, the second thing you raise, [a quid pro quo], he denies, and so do the Ukrainians. If alternative information emerges, we have a different set of circumstances, but that’s not before us right now.”

Trump and members of his administration have given mixed messages about whether they plan to publicly release the transcript of the president’s call with Zelensky. At times, Trump has said he is wary of doing so because it would set a bad precedent — an argument that Rubio and some other Republicans echoed Monday night.

“What about all the other conversations that the presidents of the United States have with foreign leaders and so forth?” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said. “A lot of that is not for public consumption, I would imagine.”

Asked whether Congress should at least see the transcript, Shelby demurred.

“Well, I don’t know what’s in it,” he said.

Paul Kane and John Wagner contributed to this report.