By Scott Wong and Jordain Carney - 07-11-17 20:13 PM EDT
A handful of Hill Republicans offered muted criticism of President Trump's eldest son Tuesday, saying that it was ill-advised for Donald Trump Jr. to take a meeting last year with a Russian lawyer who promised she had dirt on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Senate Finance Committe Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) exclaimed when asked by reporters whether he himself would have attended such a meeting.
"No!" Hatch said.
"Anytime you're in a campaign and you get an offer from a foreign government to help your campaign, the answer is 'no,' " said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Russia hawk who ran against Trump in the GOP presidential primary.
Perhaps the most surprising remarks came from Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), an early Trump backer whose Long Island district favored Trump by a 12-point margin. Over the weekend, Zeldin dismissed a New York Times story about a meeting between Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney with ties to the Kremlin, as "a big nothingburger."
But Zeldin changed his tune on Tuesday after Trump Jr. pre-empted an upcoming New York Times story on Twitter by posting an email chain from last year showing he planned to meet with the Russian source to learn about incriminating opposition research about Clinton - information the British publicist who arranged the meeting described as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
"I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to succeed, but that meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no," Zeldin tweeted.
The GOP candidate's son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, also attended the June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower.
The disclosure of Trump Jr.'s email chain represents the latest twist in the months-long saga about Moscow's meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia sought to influence the outcome of the presidential election in Trump's favor. And Democrats pointed to Trump Jr.'s newly disclosed email chain as the clearest evidence yet that the Trump campaign had engaged in collusion.
Other Democrats suggested the younger Trump had broken federal elections law by accepting a "contribution" from a foreign national related to an election.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), another frequent Russia critic who's been critical of Trump, said the emails meant that "another shoe just dropped."
"More shoes will drop," McCain said. "It's the classic scandal."
Still, there was no chorus of GOP voices condemning Trump Jr.'s meeting with Veselnitskaya. Most Republicans appeared to circle the wagons on Tuesday, either offering support for the president's eldest son or sidestepping questions about the growing scandal altogether.
One Trump loyalist, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), described the new round of Russia stories as part of a "great witch hunt" against Trump, his family and his administration. And while Hatch said he wouldn't have attended the meeting with the Russian lawyer, he called the Trump Jr. story "overblown."
Freshman Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), a former ambassador under President George W. Bush, said on CNN he "probably" would not have met a Russian official shopping opposition research. But he argued that Trump Jr. was merely "a private citizen from the private sector not schooled-up in politics."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) praised Trump Jr. for being transparent - echoing comments from the president.
"Transparency is the proper thing to do. And I think he's shown that he wants everybody to know what the situation is. ... Everything I've read about him and other people in the family, they're always saying they're willing to testify and they want to get their story out," Grassley told reporters.
A spokesperson for Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) did not respond to an email seeking comment about Trump Jr. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) repeatedly sidestepped the issue Tuesday, instead directing reporters' questions to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is probing Russia's election interference.
"What all I have a lot of confidence in is the Senate Intelligence Committee," McConnell told reporters. The panel's two leaders, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), "have ball control."
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), one of Trump's most vocal defenders in the Senate, declined to comment on Tuesday, saying he hadn't "seen much today on that, honestly."
The largely muted response from Republicans comes as Democrats have seized on the email chain as a dramatic escalation of allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
"The emails are the end of the idea pushed by the administration and the president that there is absolutely no evidence of intent to coordinate or collude," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
Clinton's running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), said Trump Jr.'s actions could even amount to "treason," something Republicans dismissed as ridiculous.
"The investigation - it's not, nothing is proven yet, but we're ... moving into perjury, false statements and even potentially treason," he told reporters.
Multiple Senate and House committees, as well as special counsel Robert Mueller, are investigating Russia's election interference, potential ties between the campaign and Moscow and any attempt to obstruct the FBI probe.
Those committees signaled on Tuesday that they want to hear directly from Trump Jr. and are vying for the chance to be the first to speak with him.
"We're going to look at everything and go where the facts lead us," Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said before declining to comment further.
Tuesday's political bombshell marked yet another example of the ongoing Russia scandal threatening to eclipse the GOP agenda on Capitol Hill.
McConnell said Tuesday he was taking the rare step of delaying the August recess by two weeks in an effort to catch up on a backlog of legislation that is months behind schedule. As reporters hounded lawmakers on Capitol Hill about Trump Jr., some GOP senators urged their colleagues to stay focused on policy.
"If we get distracted by something for which there's an ongoing investigation, and don't tend to the issues at hand ... one, we're not doing our job, and, two, we're being too easily distracted," Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "We need to focus on the matter at hand."