In television interviews, hallways and events back home, Republican lawmakers who hold President Trump's fate in their hands are struggling to give a "yes" or "no" answer to one question: Is it wrong for a U.S. president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival?
President Trump's request in a July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden — and subsequent comments to reporters that China should also investigate the Bidens — have left Republicans on Capitol Hill without a coherent or unified response regarding a president who still enjoys strong approval ratings among self-identified Republicans.
A recent Quinnipiac poll found 68% of Republicans say asking a foreign leader for help in defeating an opponent in an upcoming election is not an impeachable offense. But no small number of GOP senators have seemed unable to answer whether asking a foreign leader for help in defeating an opponent is even unethical.
Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican up for reelection next year in a purple state, refused to directly answer at least five times when reporters in Denver on Thursday asked whether the president's conduct was wrong. Pressed on whether it's okay for an American president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, Gardner responded, "Well look, this is what we're going to get into. The Senate Intelligence Committee is having an investigation, a bipartisan investigation. Unfortunately, though, what we've seen is a very political process take over."
Asked again, Gardner responded, "It's an answer that you get from a very serious investigation."
On Thursday, "CBS This Morning" co-hosts Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil pressed Republican Senator Rand Paul on whether the president was wrong to ask Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. And repeatedly, Paul skirted directly answering. Here is their exchange:
"Is it wrong, or isn't it?" asked "CBS This Morning" co-host Anthony Mason, of the president's request to investigate the Bidens.
"Well the — no I think it's not incorrect or wrong to," Paul responded.
"It's okay for the president to be—" Mason questioned.
"Well, no, let me finish," Paul said. "What I would say is that aid that we give to other countries should be contingent upon behavior. And whether or not we should have Ukraine trying to eradicate corruption, yes."
"This was specifically about Mr. Biden," Mason interjected.
"Well, I don't know, ask the American people if they think $50,000—" Paul said.
"I'm asking you. You're a senator," Mason said.
"Well I know, but ask the American people do you think $50,000 a month that Hunter Biden was getting might have been corrupt?" Paul said.
"You were running for president in 2016 — would you have done this if you were elected?" co-host Tony Dokoupil said.
"I think everybody has different ways that they would approach things," Paul said.
"You, sir, you," Dokoupil said.
"Well, the thing is, now we're getting down to whether or not it's personality and how he interacted in a phone call. Do you impeach people because he has a more direct way of approaching?" Paul said.
"It's not a question of impeachment. It's a question of, is it right or wrong to ask a foreign leader to ask in an election? With — by the way — nearly $400 million in aid hanging over his head?" Mason said.
"I guess the thing is, would you say we can't investigate corruption if they happen to be a political figure?" Paul said.
A handful of Republicans have taken a different tactic, suggesting the president was joking or unserious when he openly called on China to investigate the Bidens in front of dozens of journalists and cameras on the White House South Lawn.
Missouri Senator Roy Blunton Sunday the president was simply baiting the press with those comments, a theory also offered by Florida Senator Marco Rubio although the White House has made no such suggestion.
BRENNAN: Are you comfortable with what the president has said here in this call for foreign governments Ukraine and China to investigate his political opponent?
BLUNT: Well I- I doubt if the China comment was serious to tell you the truth. The president—
BRENNAN: You don't take the president —
BLUNT: The president —
BRENNAN: — at his word?
BLUNT: No, the president loves to go out on the — on the White House driveway. I haven't talked to him about this. I don't know what the president was thinking. But I do know he loves to bait the press and he does that almost every day...
Some have gone as far as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who says he didn't see anything wrong with the Ukraine call as summarized. But Graham did have concerns about any request about China.
"I'm okay with what the president did," Graham told WSPA. "I don't think he did anything wrong talking to the Ukraine cause we give them money and aid. I think it was wrong to ask China to investigate. I don't trust China to be fair to anybody Trump, me, or you. So that was a mistake."
Republicans will face more questions on the topic when they return from a two-week recess on Tuesday.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is among the few Republican senators who has uttered anything critical about the president's request.
"The president should not have raised the Biden issue on that call, period. It's not appropriate for a president to engage a foreign government in an investigation of a political opponent," Portman said at a defense forum Monday in Ohio, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Mitt Romney, arguably the Republican senator most politically free to speak his opinions, given his red state's unique lack of support for the president and give that he isn't up for reelection until 2024, has offered the sharpest criticism of the president by any GOP senator.
Asked by a reporter in Utah whether he was surprised to be the only GOP senator strongly calling out the president, Romney had this answer:
"I think everyone understands that asking a foreign government to investigate one's political opponent is wrong," Romney said. "I don't think there's any exception to that."