It’s become a familiar dance in the halls of the Republican-controlled Senate: When there are uncomfortable questions about President Trump, GOP senators dodge, deflect, or deny there’s a story.
That approach—typically at work when Trump tweets out tariff threats or fires an administration official—is being tested to its limits this week, thanks to explosive reporting about Trump’s conversations with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky.
On Monday evening, many Republican senators claimed to not have seen the multiple news stories—which had been dominating cable TV and social media since last Thursday—reporting that Trump pressed Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s role in his son’s business dealings in Ukraine, prompting an anonymous whistleblower to come forward.
Nor did many Republicans see that Trump himself had admitted on Monday morning during a press availability to bringing up Biden to Zelensky, and saying his withholding of $250 million in aid to Ukraine was related to general concerns about the country’s “corruption”—which was mentioned by Trump in the same breath as the Bidens.
Instead, Republicans blamed Democrats for making the story political, deferred to the congressional investigative process, and suggested that process should be brought to bear in finding facts not only about Trump’s contacts with Ukraine, but about Biden’s, too.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), in particular, wanted to get to the facts.
“Let’s get all the facts out,” he said. “I think we ought to have the facts out about that. And we ought to get the facts out about what Biden has said… We don’t know exactly the facts. Let’s get the facts on both of those issues”
Asked to clarify if he felt Biden should be investigated by Congress, Scott replied, “I think we just get the facts out.”
Other Republicans were hardly dying for more facts on the particulars of Trump’s conversations with Ukraine.
“This was vetted by the [Director of National Intelligence] and the Office of Legal Counsel,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) of the whistleblower’s complaint. “And they said, this does not rise to the level where Congress should have access to this information. There is a reason we have executive privilege.”
Johnson instead suggested the press spend its time asking questions about Biden. “I agree that you should be asking what exactly happened in Ukraine,” said Johnson, “with Vice President Biden and Hunter Biden. What was happening there? That’s some question you guys should be asking.”
It was left to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT)—perhaps the only Republican senator willing to publicly cross Trump on such matters—to advance the modest suggestion that Congress should have access to a transcript of the president’s conversation with Zelensky and to hear directly from the whistleblower.
“The allegations that have been made through the media, from whatever sources the media has, are very serious,” said Romney. “And to determine exactly what happened, it would be very helpful to receive the facts through the transcript of the conversation the president had, and I presume, also a discussion with the whistleblower.”
Still, Romney declined to say if he was concerned by Trump’s public admission of discussing Biden with Zelensky. “It’s one thing to mention someone's name, it's another thing to say, would you please carry out an investigation of this person and behalf of my campaign?” he said.
Several of his colleagues, however, quickly threw cold water on the idea of obtaining that transcript, or obtaining the whistleblower’s complaint—document Democrats are seeking through a subpoena.
“No, this is not something Congress necessarily has to have its hands on,” said Johnson. “There's a reason these conversations between world leaders are kept confidential.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said that revealing those details would set a precedent that “makes it tough to have a confidential conversation.”
“I would think if they could release the transcript that would answer a lot of questions,” said Portman, adding that the White House could seek the OK from Ukrainian officials to release the transcript.
GOP leadership does not seem interested in avoiding the issue entirely. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday that he wanted the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, as well as the intelligence community Inspector General Michael K. Atkinson, to brief the Senate Intelligence Committee this week on the matter.
"I believe it's extremely important that their work be handled in a secure setting… based on facts, rather than leaks to the press,” said McConnell, adding that he felt it “regrettable” that Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff chose to “politicize” the issue, omitting that the whistleblower has been trying to pursue the complaint through the proper channels.
“This isn’t a political matter,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), formerly McConnell’s deputy, to the press later that day. “This is a matter of congressional oversight responsibilities.”
Cornyn was asked by a reporter if Trump requesting political help from a foreign leader made it a political matter, but the elevator taking him to the Senate floor closed.