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Vulnerable Republicans avoid criticizing Trump after admission to Woodward about downplaying virus

For months, Republican senators have praised the President’s response to the health and economic crisis, the central issue in their political campaigns, even as polling suggests that a majority of Americans disapprove of it, recognizing many of their own races depend in large part on the President’s performance in November.

But Democrats have seized upon Trump’s latest comments made to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in February and March. In the interviews for Woodward’s forthcoming book “Rage,” the President said that he didn’t want “to create a panic” about the spread of coronavirus, so he liked “playing it down” even though the airborne virus was potentially five times “more deadly” than the flu.

After CNN and other outlets reported this week on Trump’s comments, some vulnerable Republican senators declined to comment.

GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa declined to answer questions about Trump’s remarks on Wednesday. On Thursday, she told CNN, “I haven’t read it, I haven’t seen it, so give me a chance to take a look.”

Arizona Sen. Martha McSally said on Wednesday that she also hadn’t reviewed the remarks, and her office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins wouldn’t take questions on them as she left the Senate floor on Wednesday and Thursday.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn said on Thursday that he wouldn’t comment since he did not have “personal knowledge” of the President’s remarks and that he didn’t “have any confidence in the reporting,” even though Trump has not disputed its accuracy and the remarks are on tape.

“These stories seem to change every day,” said Cornyn.

Other Republicans defended Trump, saying that it’s the President’s job to calm the nation during a crisis.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis told CNN, “When you’re in a crisis situation, you have to inform people for their public health but you also don’t want to create hysteria.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is also facing reelection, added, “I don’t think he needs to go on TV and screaming we’re all going to die.”

Sen. David Perdue, the Georgia Republican in a tight race, said Thursday: “I understand trying to manage the psyche of the country and also look at the actions that he took. … I look at what he did — and it was certainly a strong response.”

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican on the ballot in the fall. “The President tends to speak loosely. We know that. That’s just his pattern.”

Other vulnerable Republicans haven’t weighed in, including Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, whose office did not respond to a request for comment.

In some cases, the Republican senators themselves have underplayed or underestimated the crisis. At a recent Iowa event, Ernst told an attendee that she was also “so skeptical” of the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. (She later walked back those remarks.) And in April, Graham said on Fox that he thought the United States would be able to contain the virus from claiming more than 100,000 deaths.

There have been over 6.3 million cases of coronavirus in the US and over 191,000 deaths, according to the latest Johns Hopkins tally.

Overall, vulnerable Republican senators have praised Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Tillis said the President made the “right call” in his response, praising him for imposing travel restrictions from China in February and boosting the number of ventilators to aid those suffering from Covid-19.
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Graham said that “it became clear that the human transmission was greater than originally thought.” He noted that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said on February 29 that there was “no need” for people to change their lifestyles “at this moment.” (Fauci also warned then on the Today show about the threat of “community spread” from the coronavirus and cautioned that the risk level “could change.”)

“He’s done as good a job as you can under the circumstances,” Cornyn told CNN.

Democrats have attacked Trump and Senate Republicans after the President’s comments came to light. Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield criticized her opponent Ernst on Wednesday for “failing Iowans” in her response to the President’s remarks.

“First she misled Iowans by comparing #COVID19 to the flu, then said Iowa has ‘fared pretty well,’ and spread debunked conspiracy theories that attack health care workers,” tweeted Greenfield. “We deserve better.”

But GOP leaders have said Trump’s management of the virus will not hurt Republicans down ticket.

“I think a much stronger dynamic that people who will be attentive to coming weeks, is just what a weak candidate Joe Biden is, and how unenthusiastic, the radical left is about Joe Biden,” said Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who runs the Senate Republican campaign arm.

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.




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