02:25 - Source: CNN
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CNN  — 

Republican senators facing tough reelection races this fall steered clear of criticizing President Donald Trump after his stunning admission that he downplayed the severity of the crisis caused by the spread of coronavirus, dodging questions regarding his remarks or defending his overall response to the pandemic.

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.”

Asked if it were appropriate for Trump to compare the flu to the coronavirus when the President privately acknowledged it was far deadlier, Tillis didn’t directly answer. He instead pointed to briefings from the White House coronavirus task force, saying the message was to “be prepared for the pandemic; hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

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.”

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who has perhaps the toughest reelection race of any Republican member, was asked in a telephone town hall on Thursday evening whether it was “appropriate” for Trump to “lie to the American public” by publicly downplaying the threat of coronavirus in comparing it to the flu, while knowing that it is more dangerous.

Gardner did not directly answer the question, responding that he “certainly” takes the pandemic seriously and that he worked with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to obtain tests and masks, according to a recording of the event obtained by CNN.

Instead of addressing the President’s comments, he accused the media and Democrats for not taking the pandemic seriously enough back then. He said that “unfortunately” the first question CNN asked him after he left a coronavirus briefing in January was about Trump’s impeachment during the trial. And he criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for inviting people to Chinatown in San Francisco in February.

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 more than 6.3 million cases of coronavirus in the US and more than 191,000 deaths, according to the latest Johns Hopkins tally.

While some top Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, defended Trump’s handling of the pandemic, a couple were sharply critical.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who previously said she’s “struggling” with whether to vote for Trump, said Thursday that some of the President’s comments are “very, very, very concerning.”

“Some of the things I find quite surprising and quite concerning,” Murkowski told reporters.

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who voted to remove Trump from office during his impeachment trial, said Thursday, “I think we’re always better leveling with the American public, and that maintains credibility – rather than trying to tell them one thing when we believe another.”

Neither Romney nor Murkowski is up for reelection this cycle.

Overall, a number of Republican senators facing reelection 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.

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.

This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.