Amid blistering bipartisan criticism of President Donald Trump’s willingness to accept dirt on his 2020 rivals from foreign adversaries, House Republicans decided Thursday that they had found the real culprit: Democrats.
The top Republican in the House, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, repeatedly refused to address Trump’s remarks and instead blasted House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) for receiving a prank phone call last year from Ukrainians posing as Russians offering damaging information on Trump.
“Adam Schiff got a phone call that he willingly thought was a foreign individual. And he took it. What action did he take after the fact? Did the Democratic Party spend money to a foreign individual to try to drum something up that were lies? That’s what we found,” McCarthy said.
Like McCarthy, Trump claimed on Twitter Thursday morning that Schiff never called the FBI: “Did he call the FBI, or even think to call the FBI? NO!” In an ABC News interview on Wednesday, Trump scoffed at the notion of reporting offers of foreign assistance to the FBI and swiped at his own FBI director for suggesting he should.
Schiff roundly rejected Trump’s and McCarthy’s complaints, arguing that not only were they wrongheaded, they were factually incorrect.
“The president claimed today, ‘why didn’t Adam Schiff call the FBI?’ The only problem with that was we did. We called the FBI even before we took the call. We informed the Republican majority and invited them to participate in the call,” he said. “So Mr. McCarthy’s wrong again.”
McCarthy repeatedly deflected when pressed on Trump’s actions and statements, calling them “hypothetical” and suggesting that Democrats were implicated in the same behavior in 2016.
He and other House Republicans pointed to the Hillary Clinton campaign’s use of a firm, Fusion GPS, that hired former British spy Christopher Steele to dig up dirt on Trump in 2016. But Democrats rejected the comparison, noting there’s few similarities between soliciting help from a foreign government — as Trump did in 2016 when he publicly urged Russians to obtain Clinton’s emails — and contracting with an entity that employs foreign individuals.
“Here you had one candidate appealing to a foreign country to hack his opponent’s emails and commit a crime, and you had that foreign government attempt to do exactly that later that day and arrange to provide dirt on that opponent secretly,” Schiff said. “I don’t think there’s anything equivalent to that in the Clinton campaign.”
Democrats got some backup for that argument from House Republicans’ own 2018 report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“It is not illegal to contract with a foreign person or foreign entity for services, including conducting opposition research on a U.S. campaign, so long as the service was paid for at the market rate,” according to the report.
Yet Republicans leaned into the attack Thursday, drawing a parallel between the Democrats’ reliance on Steele — whose memos remained secret until after the 2016 election — and Trump’s suggestion of accepting foreign government help with his campaign.
“Talk about taking foreign help. Hillary Clinton hired a foreign spy. He talked to Russians and put together an oppo research document,” tweeted Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “It wasn’t verified, but the FBI used it to spy on the Trump campaign.”
“Fusion GPS was hired by Republicans to do opposition research, they were hired back [by] the Democratic Party to do opposition research,” added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “They hired Steele with money paid for by the Democratic Party.”
Trump forced the issue into Congress’ lap in part because he suggested that lawmakers themselves routinely rely on foreign government help in their campaigns.
“If you go talk honestly to congressmen, they all do it,” he said.
But lawmakers of both parties insisted Trump was wrong, arguing they’d never accept such help from a foreign government.
“I’ve criticized Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee for two years for doing exactly that,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “It would be fairly inconsistent of me not to say the president shouldn’t do it either.”
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to ever do anything like that and I think you have an obligation to pick up the phone and call the FBI if we know this is from a foreign government,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a veteran aligned with GOP leadership. “I am just worried about the general carelessness of that remark. I don’t think that’s going to sit well with most Americans. It shouldn’t. It’s just not an appropriate way to behave in a political campaign.”
Other Republicans declined to criticize Trump but said they would refuse foreign assistance for their campaigns.
“I wouldn’t accept it,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), adding, “I don’t trust Russians.”
Melanie Zanona, Heather Caygle and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.