Senate Republicans are scrambling to play defense two months before Election Day because of the embarrassing revelation that the FBI seized dozens of classified documents from former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
Republican senators want to talk about Biden’s economic record and inflation but instead are being barraged by questions about Trump’s decision to stash more than 300 classified documents at his personal residence, an apparent violation of the 1978 Presidential Records Act.
The revelation late Tuesday in a Washington Post repot that the discoveries included top-secret information about the nuclear capabilities of a foreign country have only worsened the episode from a GOP political point of view.
Most Republicans in the Senate are treading cautiously on the gravity of Trump’s actions until they have more information about the sensitivity of the documents and how much of a risk any security breaches may pose to U.S. intelligence sources and methods.
“I think classified information is supposed to be handled in a certain way and obviously we understand that here,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D), referring to the secure facility in the Capitol basement where senators are required to review sensitive intelligence documents.
“We’ll know more information, I assume, in the future as more facts come out about what actually was taken, what it consisted of and then I think we’ll be able to make clear conclusions about it,” he said.
Thune cautioned: “The rules for handling classified information are pretty clear.”
Yet Thune also called the FBI raid of a former president’s residence “an extreme measure.”
“There’s got to be a really good justification,” he said.
The latest news bombshell came Tuesday with the Post’s report that FBI agents found a document describing a foreign government’s military defenses and nuclear capabilities at Mar-a-Lago. The information was so secret that only the president and Cabinet-level or near-Cabinet-level officials could authorize access to its contents, according to The Post.
Some Republicans, notably Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), are voicing serious concerns about what looks like to be a serious breach of national security protocol.
“It’s stunning, it’s outrageous that highly sensitive documents of the United States of America were kept in an insecure place. That’s why we have laws to prevent it,” Romney said in response to the report of Trump’s position of highly classified military information.
Romney said whether a criminal prosecution is warranted “will be up to the prosecutors.”
Collins, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said she’s also concerned about what the FBI reportedly found at Trump’s residence and renewed her call for a full accounting of what documents the FBI seized at Mar-a-Lago.
“Of course I’m concerned there are classified documents,” said Collins, though she added there is much that remains unknown.
“All we have are unsubstantiated leaks and that’s why I strongly support the request of the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee for us to have full access to all the documents that were retrieved,” Collins said.
She also asked for members of the Intelligence Committee to have access to the unredacted affidavit justifying the Mar-a-Lago raid.
Other Republicans are trying to dodge the issue and a few of Trump’s most stalwart allies are attacking the FBI’s motives for raiding Trump’s home.
“I’m going to leave it to the FBI to go through the investigation and answer questions people have had about the warrant process but at this point I’m just going to let the investigation go forward and not comment on it,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a member of Congress’s Gang of Eight, which has access to top-level intelligence briefings, on Wednesday said he hasn’t yet talked to other senior congressional leaders about what classified documents Trump had at his home and punted the issue to Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Having just gotten back, I have not personally talked to any of the other Gang of Eight about this,” McConnell said, referring to the top chairmen and top-ranking Republicans on the Senate and House intelligence committees as well as the top two party leaders in each chamber who have access to the highest-level briefings.
Senate sources say they expect the Gang of Eight to receive a briefing at some point about the FBI raid but that’s not expected to happen before next week.
“I don’t really have any comments on this whole investigation that’s been dominating the news for the last month. I think we’re following it like all of you are,” he told reporters.
McConnell suggested that reporters follow up with Rubio, who last month joined Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in sending a private letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines requesting more information on the FBI search and what it found.
Rubio more recently has downplayed the controversy over Trump’s possession of classified material as a “storage” issue.
“I don’t think a fight over storage of documents is worthy of what they’ve done, which is [a] full-scale raid,” he told an NBC affiliate in Miami.
But Republicans are privately frustrated that they have to be playing defense over Trump’s hard-to-explain decisions to take boxes of classified material to Florida, despite clear federal prohibitions against doing so.
This has forced them to talk about Trump’s legal problems, a favorite Democratic topic, instead of the cost of gas, food and other staples, which have soared since Biden took office.
Many Senate Republicans blame Trump for costing them their majority in January 2021 after he claimed 2020 election results in Georgia were tainted by fraud, which depressed Republican voter turnout ahead of two run-off elections, which Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff wound up winning — giving Democrats 50 Senate seats and the majority.