WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse said Wednesday that there’s “terrible stuff” in the rough transcript of a phone call between President Donald Trump and the Ukrainian president.
But the Nebraska Republican also suggested that everybody needs to slow down before drawing final conclusions.
“Obviously, we shouldn’t be having any American officeholder or any American candidate looking for foreign nations to come in and be involved in U.S. elections,” Sasse told The World-Herald. “There’s a lot that’s troubling in this transcript, but there’s a lot more information I also want to see.”
Most other Capitol Hill lawmakers — including those from Nebraska and Iowa — have split along party lines regarding the summary of the phone call, an extensive but not necessarily verbatim documentation of the conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The two talked about ways the United States could help Ukraine. And Trump requested a favor: investigate interference in the 2016 presidential election and also dig into allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden.
Democrats backing an impeachment inquiry view the transcript as a smoking gun proving Trump illegally pressured a foreign country to go after his political rival.
Many Republicans say it reflects a totally normal, candid call between two world leaders.
Sasse says both camps are misguided.
“Many Republicans are rushing to circle the wagons and declare that there’s nothing bad in the transcript — that isn’t true,” Sasse said in the interview. “But there are also Democrats who had already decided they were going to impeach the president yesterday before they had any actual facts in front of them and I think that’s disastrous for the public health.”
Sasse serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee responsible for digging into the matter, which will include reviewing a whistleblower’s complaint.
Sasse said the White House should release all of the information related to the situation that it can without exposing intelligence sources and methods.
He said careful attention to detail will be better than cable television's hour-after-hour series of “hot takes.”
“I think there’s a lot of people, right and left, running around like headless chickens,” Sasse said. “And I don’t think that serves the long-term public interest.”
The partisan divide cited by Sasse is reflected in reactions to the transcript by Iowa and Nebraska politicians.
Most GOP officeholders offered little or no criticism of the transcript contents, while Democratic candidates for Congress said it shows the need for an impeachment inquiry.
In a statement, Sasse’s home-state GOP colleague Sen. Deb Fischer said, “I read the full un-redacted transcript of President Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president and, contrary what we were led to believe, there was no 'smoking gun.' The conversation was as the president portrayed it."
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said, “I’ve looked at the transcript; I don’t see anything there. The Senate Intelligence Committee is going through proper, bipartisan procedures on this whole matter.”
During a conference call with reporters, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, directed any criticism away from Trump and instead characterized Democrats as hypocrites given that Biden bragged about getting Ukraine’s prosecutor fired for not aggressively pursuing corruption cases.
Republicans have suggested that move benefited Biden’s son Hunter, although Hunter had not personally been accused of wrongdoing. Grassley also indicated he and his GOP colleagues are not overly focused on impeachment.
"You go to my town meetings in Iowa, you don’t hear this talk about impeachment,” Grassley said.
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., reiterated previous criticism that the impeachment inquiry represents a rush to judgment, while Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said the Justice Department found no violation of campaign finance laws in the transcript.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said it’s not good for Trump or any U.S. official to talk about political opponents with a foreign leader because doing so leaves them open to attacks. But he saw nothing illegal in Trump’s conversation.
“There was no quid pro quo,” Bacon said. “I found it rather innocuous, by and large.”
Two Democrats seeking to face Bacon next year, Kara Eastman and Ann Ashford, previously split over the impeachment question.
Eastman supports House Democrats’ move to open an impeachment inquiry — she’s been calling for them to do so since special counsel Robert Mueller testified in July. Ashford had counseled patience, but this week’s revelations prompted her to support the inquiry, which she suggested could help bring information out quicker.
“I think this is a really sad and sobering occasion that we’ve gotten to the point where an inquiry is necessary,” Ashford said. “But it is necessary and we need to follow where the facts lead us.”
Eastman said this isn’t the first time Trump has invited a foreign power to interfere in U.S. elections.
“We need people in Congress who are going to stand up and do what’s right for the country and for our national security regardless of party politics and regardless of what the leadership of the party tells us to do,” Eastman said. “And I think that’s where my independent voice is going to shine through.”
Chris Janicek, a Nebraska Democrat running for Sasse’s Senate seat, issued a statement supporting the impeachment inquiry.
“As a nation we cannot allow a complete disregard for the rule of law,” Janicek said. “President Trump appears to have undermined the faith voters put in him.”