By Manu Raju, CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent
Senior Republicans are closing ranks behind Sen. Mike Rounds after he endured a scathing attack from former President Donald Trump for acknowledging the reality that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election.
“I think Sen. Rounds told the truth about what happened in the 2020 election,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN on Tuesday. “And I agree with him.”
The back-and-forth is the latest sign that many Republicans — particularly in the Senate — are eager to move past the former President’s obsession with the 2020 elections and instead focus on more fertile ground: The Biden agenda and their efforts to take back both houses of Congress in 2022.
Yet, Trump continues to hover over the party given his outsize influence with the base, his close hold over House Republicans and his ability to generate attention over his outright falsehoods and conspiracies over the outcome of the 2020 election. That has prompted concerns among senior Republicans that his claims over the election could depress GOP voter turnout in the fall, something that a number of senators blame for costing them the two Georgia Senate seats — and the majority — last January.
The latest blowup came over the weekend after Rounds said that any voting “irregularities” in 2020 wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the race.
“The election was fair, as fair as we have seen. We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency,” Rounds told ABC News.
That fact-based comment prompted a broadside from the former President, who called Rounds a “jerk” and “ineffective” and vowed “never” to endorse Rounds for reelection, though he’s not facing voters again until 2026.
“Is he crazy or just stupid?” Trump said in a statement.
Rounds, who has a low-key and genial demeanor and is well-regarded by his colleagues, stood by his comments — and said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by Trump’s statement. Rounds told CNN on Tuesday that Republicans need to speak the truth to voters about 2020 so they can have trust in the results of free and fair elections in 2022 and beyond.
“Nobody is out looking for confrontations,” Rounds said, defending his remarks. “What we are looking for is to be able to provide good information in a timely fashion, but to be seen as being responsible and being honest. I think that’s what the American people deserve. And I think that’s what many of us want to do. We’re not looking to fight. What we’re looking is, is to say here are the facts, and they’re not going to change.”
Rounds added: “Why are we having that discussion today? I think because we’re getting closer and closer to 2022, in which we want people to get out and vote. We want them to have faith in the election process. We want them to feel like they’re a part of it and that their vote really matters.”
Even some Trump allies came to Rounds’ defense on Tuesday.
“I’ve always said I agree that the election was not stolen — at least to the degree that it was illegal theft,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican who contended Democrats took advantage of more voting rules eased during the pandemic. “I’ve moved on a long time ago, and most members of Congress have, including Mike.”
Other Republicans said it was time to focus on something other than 2020.
“I say to my colleague, welcome to the club,” Sen. John Thune, the senior South Dakota Republican said of the Trump attack on Rounds — something he has endured himself in the past. “I don’t think re-litigating or rehashing the past is a winning strategy. If we want to be a majority in 2023, we’ve got to get out and articulate what we’re going to do with respect to the future the American people are going to live and the things they’re going to care about when it comes to economic issues, national security issues.”
Many Republicans were angered over the personal nature of Trump’s attacks against Rounds, who lost his wife in November after a battle with cancer.
“I take great exception to anybody that calls Mike Rounds a jerk,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican. “Because he’s one of the kindest, nicest, most sincere members that we have.”
Still, some Republicans wanted to stay above the fray.
“Nothing to add to what’s already out there,” Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and member of GOP leadership, said when asked about the episode.
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CNN’s Ted Barrett, Morgan Rimmer and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.