A simple yes-or-no question keeps tripping up Senate Republicans: Should the president ask foreign countries to investigate political rivals?
A month ago the question was a legal and constitutional no-brainer. It’s illegal to accept foreign help in a political campaign, an action that also raises questions about U.S. sovereignty. But President Donald Trump last week forcefully defended his right to do so as he publicly called on both China and Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter. A private request for Ukraine to launch a probe triggered an impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
Two Republican senators — Joni Ernst of Iowa and Cory Gardner of Colorado — repeatedly refused to answer reporters’ questions on whether a president should make such a request of a rival power. “I don’t know that we have that information in front of us,” Ernst said in Iowa, even though the president made the request in front of cameras on the White House lawn.
In Denver, Gardner likewise wouldn’t answer reporters’ variations on the question 12 separate times before an appearance with the Colorado Chamber of Commerce. Like Ernst, he tried to punt to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the circumstances around Trump’s private call with Ukraine. “It’s an answer that you get from a very serious investigation,” Gardner told reporters when asked about the appropriateness of the president’s public comments.
The hesitance of the two senators, who are both up for reelection next year in competitive states, contrasted with the stances of two Republicans not facing the voters anytime soon. On Wednesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is retiring next year, said in a statement that it was “inappropriate” for Trump to make his request. But, Alexander added, impeachment would be a “mistake.”
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who was easily reelected in 2016, told reporters on Tuesday that Trump’s request was “wrong” but argued it isn’t an impeachable offense.
Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush, who has often defended Trump, tweeted Thursday: “Trump doesn’t hide what he does. But it’s still wrong for Presidents and candidates to ask foreign governments to get involved in our elections.”
In contrast, Ernst and Gardner seemed to follow a pattern set by fellow Republican Arizona Sen. Martha McSally — also a top Democratic target next year. On Monday, McSally also wouldn’t answer whether the president can ask for overseas help, instead referring to the Senate Intelligence Committee probe and taking swipes at House Democrats.
Ernst and Gardner also tried to turn the question into an attack on the other party. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted a video of Ernst refusing to answer questions about a president’s overseas call for political help, Ernst tweeted back: “Actually, American elections should be decided by ELECTIONS. Not politicians. I know you’re still upset about the results from 2016, but people here in Iowa would sure appreciate it if you spent less time playing political games and actually brought #USMCAnow up for a vote.” USMCA is the acronym of a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In Denver, Gardner also tried to turn his awkward situation into an opportunity to attack Pelosi and Democrats. He contended that Democrats were looking for an excuse to remove Trump from office.
“This is about the politics of the moment and that’s why they’re trying to do this now,” Gardner said.
The Colorado senator’s repeated dodging of the question may have made for awkward television, but it seemed to make one important viewer happy. Trump liked a tweet from a reporter describing Gardner’s refusal to discuss the appropriateness of the president’s requests.