WASHINGTON ― Senate Republicans came up with creative answers or gave up and ran away from reporters on Tuesday when asked about Donald Trump’s performance during his first presidential debate against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Out of several Republicans The Huffington Post asked about Trump’s Monday night showing, three said it was “interesting” before escaping behind closed doors, one told HuffPost to “go away,” three thought their nominee started out strong but couldn’t keep up momentum, and another was just pleased “nobody was throwing anything.”
The typically vocal and far from camera-shy Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) shuffled away as quickly as he could when HuffPost asked what he thought of the debate.
“No, no” Graham said, barely making eye contact. “I’m not going to talk about it.”
Pressed on why he wouldn’t, Graham continued to tilt his body away as he scurried through the Senate underground, drawing laughter from Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who had been walking beside him.
“No, no, no. Go away, go away,” Graham continued, shooing the reporter with his hand while letting out a small chuckle. “Bye.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who along with Graham ran against Trump for the Republican nomination, said he had been on a plane during the debate and planned to watch the “highlights” later.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) referred HuffPost to a statement his office put out after the debate and refused to elaborate further.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who arguably has the most experience in presidential debates out of all of his Republican colleagues, didn’t want to get into details about Trump either.
“I thought it was very interesting,” McCain said while walking away quickly. Pressed for more details, he repeated himself. “I thought it was interesting,” he said before running onto the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) shared McCain’s assessment.
“It was very interesting,” he said, flashing a smirk over his shoulder before ducking completely behind a door and into a private intel meeting.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) also thought it was “interesting.” She was one of the few Republicans willing to talk at greater length about Trump’s performance.
“It was a strong performance at the beginning; I think he missed some opportunities,” Fischer said. “For example the cybersecurity question: I wish he would have asked Mrs. Clinton about her server and her emails and the issue we have there with security and dealing with that.”
Fischer told HuffPost that during the debate, a female friend of hers in her 30s texted her, dismayed that Clinton defended herself by bringing up policies pushed by her husband, President Bill Clinton.
“She said: ‘This just set women back years,” Fischer said of her friend’s text.
When reminded that Trump attacked Clinton based on her husband’s record repeatedly during the debate, Fischer dismissed it.
“Oh, I thought he held back on it,” she said.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said he thought the debate “was too long,” and agreed with Fischer’s analysis that Trump “had a strong start” but needed improvement.
“I think that’s probably a fair assessment,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said of Trump unraveling as the debate went along.
In the end, Burr didn’t think it moved many undecided voters. Asked about Trump admitting he took advantage of the housing market crash and labeling it as the price of doing business, Burr distanced himself.
“I probably wouldn’t have said it,” Burr said. “But this is his debate and his race.”
Republicans struggled the most when trying to account for Trump’s comments about the weight of a former Miss Universe winner ― something Clinton raised during Monday’s debate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), asked about the debate and the Republican nominee’s fresh criticism of Miss Universe’s weight, answered only: “On the debate, I thought he did just fine.”
Trump doubled down on his comments about Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe, Tuesday morning during his appearance on Fox, saying “she gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) dodged as well when asked about Trump’s attacks on Machado.
“I was working out, and working this morning,” Ryan said. “I wasn’t watching Fox News this morning. So I’m not going to comment on something I didn’t see,” Ryan said, before skipping to an apparently prepared comment on Trump’s performance.
“I suppose you want a comment on this debate,” Ryan said. “I saw Hillary Clinton give a polished, well-rehearsed defense of a status quo which seven out of 10 Americans don’t like. I saw Donald Trump give a spirited voice to those of us who don’t like the status quo.”
Trump’s staunchest supporter in the Senate and his adviser on foreign policy, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), was the only Republican to fiercely defend the Republican nominee’s performance.
But when asked if it was appropriate for a nominee for president to be commenting on a woman’s weight, Sessions started to walk faster to escape behind a door reporters aren’t allowed behind.
“Oh, that was some old comment he made,” said Sessions with a wave of his hand, despite the fact that Trump had brought it up earlier that morning.
Third-ranking Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) chalked it up to an inevitable downside of debates. “I thought he did what he needed to do; there’s always parts of debates and things that get said that I don’t agree with,” he said.
As for Sen. John Isakson (R-Ga.), he had more important things to do than watch the entire debate. The fact that the candidates weren’t throwing stuff at each other in the final 20 minutes he watched appeared a feat in itself for him.
“I was at a fundraiser and I’m running for re-election; I’m more worried about that,” he said. “Nobody was throwing anything or going crazy.”