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Iowa's Ernst struggles with question at the heart of Trump scandal

Either Trump can pressure foreign officials to help his campaign or he can't. Either Republicans are comfortable with his actions or they're not.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) published a tweet last week summarizing Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal with a straightforward question. "It comes down to this," the California Democrat wrote. "We've cut through the denials. The deflections. The nonsense. Donald Trump believes he can pressure a foreign nation to help him politically. It's his 'right.' Every Republican in Congress has to decide: Is he right?"

As bottom-line questions go, this seems quite fair. Obviously, the broader scandal is multifaceted, with a series of players and detailed developments, but the core of the story is simple: the American president used his office to pressure foreign governments, not to advance our interests, but to advance his. Trump fears a domestic rival, so he encouraged foreign officials to go after him.

The Republican defended himself by insisting he has an "absolute right" to engage in this conduct. The question -- by some measures, the only question -- is whether his party agrees with this assessment.

It's also a question many in the GOP don't know how to answer. Take Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), for example, who was repeatedly pressed by a CNN reporter this week to say whether it's appropriate or not for a president to solicit campaign assistance from a foreign power. Iowa Starting Line reported yesterday on the exchange:

Ernst's first response to the reporter's question was: "I think we are going to have to go back, just as I said last week, we'll have to wait. All that information is going to have to go to Senate Intelligence." [...]The reporter clarified she wanted to know whether asking a foreign power for help investigating an opponent was appropriate. "We again, we don't have the facts in front of us," Ernst said. "And what we see pushed out through the media, we don't know what is accurate at this point."The reporter interjected that she "didn't ask if it was accurate -- I'm asking you if it's appropriate for a president to ask a foreign power to investigate his domestic political rival. Yes or no?"Ernst replied: "I don't know if we have that information in front of us, and I'll just stick with what I said all along ... "

Ernst's refusal to answer the question made for a cringe-worthy display. The fact that she kept saying she didn't have information on the subject made matters worse, given the fact that Trump stood on the South Lawn of the White House and literally called for foreign governments to target Joe Biden.

To be sure, the far-right Iowan isn't the only Republican who seems unable to answer the question. By one account, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) was asked yesterday about Trump's foreign outreach. "I'm going to leave it to the president to make that decision," Tillis replied.

I didn't see the full context of the quote, but it sounds as if the North Carolina senator -- up for re-election next year -- believes it should be up to Trump to decide on his own whether to seek foreign intervention in the American campaign.

And all things considered, that's hardly a better answer than Ernst's.

The question isn't going away, so GOP officials should take this opportunity to try to prepare some coherent answers. Either Donald Trump can pressure foreign officials to help his political campaign or he can't. Either Republicans are comfortable with their party's president's actions or they're not.