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'I just don't think that's the question at hand': GOP punts on Trump conduct

Congressman Jason Crow (D-CO) quotes lines from a "Harry Potter" film to persuade the Senate to vote to convict President Trump.

Posted: Feb 3, 2020 10:10 PM
Updated: Feb 3, 2020 10:10 PM

A number of Republican senators on Monday dodged questions about whether President Donald Trump acted appropriately with Ukraine, underscoring the internal GOP divide about his conduct even as the Senate is poised to acquit him later this week on charges of high crimes and misdemeanors.

Many Republicans instead are eager to shift the attention away from the President's conduct and onto House Democrats, whom they argue failed to prove that Trump's actions warrant his removal from office. Yet they won't say if Trump acted appropriately in urging Ukraine to announce investigations that would help him politically, highlighting the fine line many are walking as they seek to avoid angering the President while not endorsing his actions.

"I just I don't think that's the question at hand," Senate Majority Whip John Thune said Monday when asked if Trump's conduct was appropriate. "The question is whether or not what he did is impeachable or whether it warrants removal from office in a Senate conviction."

Colorado GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection, would not comment about Trump's conduct after the closing arguments were delivered on Monday. Gardner last week joined 50 of his GOP colleagues in voting to block any witnesses or subpoenas for documents in the Senate trial.

"We're still in the middle of this trial," Gardner said when asked if Trump's conduct was appropriate. "We still have tomorrow to deliberate and consider. I made my comments about witnesses, and I'm not going to go on screen now that I still think we're in the middle of an important process."

After a reporter noted that closing arguments had ended, Gardner said he would reserve his comments for the Colorado press. "I'll talk to them," he said.

The comments underline how Republicans may be united in their opposition to convicting Trump -- but are divided over the propriety of Trump's actions. While some are offering a full-throated defense of Trump's actions, like Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and James Lankford of Oklahoma, others are far more critical, like the senior GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who said Trump's ask for Ukraine to investigate his political rivals was "inappropriate."

While Alexander said that Trump's conduct did not rise to the level of impeachable conduct, he conceded that Democrats had proven their case that the President used his office to press a foreign country to announce investigations that could help Trump politically.

"Let me be clear," GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said Friday. "Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us."

But Sasse didn't respond to a question when asked if he agreed with Alexander that Trump did not act appropriately.

Asked about Trump's conduct, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a member of GOP leadership, on Monday instead criticized the "purely partisan way" House Democrats mounted their inquiry.

Some Republicans, however, did side with Alexander's assessment. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said "I would concur" when asked if she agreed with Alexander's comments. GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio also reiterated his concerns with some aspects of Trump's conduct.

A number of senators plan to make their views known more clearly by taking to the Senate floor before the Wednesday afternoon acquittal vote. Yet on Monday, few seemed willing to publicly embrace what Alexander said.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a freshman who also hails from Tennessee and is a staunch defender of Trump, would not answer directly when asked if she agrees with her home-state senator's assessment that Trump acted inappropriately.

"We want to make certain that we finish up this impeachment, that we move away from this, and that we get back to things that people want to focus on. And we always want to be certain that people act appropriately within their offices," Blackburn told CNN.

Asked again if Trump acted appropriately, Blackburn wouldn't say as she walked onto the Senate subway.

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