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Republican response

Senate Republicans split over Trump urging Ukrainian leader to investigate Biden

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and other senators headed to a closed-door security briefing on Iran, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and other senators headed to a closed-door security briefing on Iran, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — 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 US 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.

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But they saved most of those complaints for closed-door talks Wednesday, calling Trump the linchpin of their party and critical for their prospects in the 2020 election.

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.

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 Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, 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,’’ Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, said when asked about the release, quickly calling out Democrats for ‘‘hating’’ Trump.

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‘‘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 Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, who attended a White House meeting Wednesday morning to review the rough transcript.

While many Republicans continue to dismiss Democrats’ impeachment efforts, cracks have begun to emerge privately as GOP lawmakers have discussed Trump’s conduct and their party’s political standing. Those 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 US Attorney General William 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.

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‘‘It remains troubling in the extreme. It’s deeply troubling,’’ Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, told reporters Wednesday when asked about the transcript.

Republican Senator Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania 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?’’ Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted. ‘‘What a nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger.’’

Others who have expressed concern about the whistle-blower 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.

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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.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said: ‘‘Biden is the one who threatened Ukraine’s aid, not Trump, and that has to be investigated.’’