Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called it “disgraceful”; Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he was “saddened” and “disappointed.” Mostly, however, Republican members of Congress reacted to President Trump’s performance beside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki with silence.
Democrats rushed to condemn Trump’s continued refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 election. But it was the reaction on Trump’s side of the political aisle — as even many administration defenders sought cover — that most captured the way the president’s comments Monday stunned many in the capital.
Before Trump’s meeting Monday with the Russian president several Republicans had urged him to send a strong sign of disapproval. The fact that Trump did almost the opposite brought sharp denunciations from the handful of Republicans who in the past have been willing to criticize the president — most of whom are not seeking reelection.
“I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic who is retiring.
McCain, who has criticized Trump’s foreign policy over and again, said in a statement that Trump’s “press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”
In the past, the Republicans most willing to push back on the leader of their party have been members who are retiring, or people involved in politics who don’t hold an elected position. This time, more joined in the criticism.
Trump’s denials that Russia attempted to interfere in the election have been one of the few things about which House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has been willing to publicly criticize the president. He repeated that criticism in a statement Monday.
“There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” he said.
“That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence. The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals,” he added.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, “As I have said repeatedly, the Russians are not our friends, and I entirely agree with the assessment of our intelligence community.”
He didn’t answer when asked if he was disappointed Trump didn’t side with the U.S. intelligence community
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who has been an outspoken critic of the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation and also is not seeking reelection, said he’s confident that the intelligence community and other officials “will be able to communicate to the President it is possible to conclude Russia interfered with our election in 2016 without de-legitimizing his electoral success.”
Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is also retiring, told reporters that Trump’s comments were “deeply disappointing” and made the U.S. look like a “pushover.”
“I get the feeling … sometimes the president cares more about how a leader treats him personally than forcefully getting out there and pushing against things that we know have harmed our nation,” Corker said. “I thought that’s what we all experienced today.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) emphasized that the panel doesn’t doubt the conclusions of the intelligence community.
“Any statement by Vladimir Putin contrary to these facts is a lie and should be recognized as one by the president,” he said. “Vladimir Putin is not our friend and never has been. Nor does he want to be our friend. His regime’s actions prove it.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called Trump’s remarks “not accurate.”
Putin “thinks the only way to make Russia stronger is to make America weaker,” Rubio said. “Any policy” or “rhetoric that is not built on that reality is destined to be counterproductive, perhaps dangerous and destined to fail,” he added.
And Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said that Trump had “failed to stand up to Vladimir Putin on some of the most critical security issues facing our country and our allies.”
For all the criticism, however, Republicans had little to say about any actions they might take in response to Trump’s remarks.
Indiana Rep. Jim Banks said in a statement, referring to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence: “We must take seriously the warnings of Director Coats and the American intelligence community. Russia is not our friend. Vladimir Putin’s goal is to destabilize America and reduce our global leadership role.”
Coats, for his part, issued a statement that reiterated the intelligence community’s view that Russia did interfere in the 2016 campaign.
“The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” he said.
Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that Trump had not specifically directed him to take steps to protect against Russian interference in the upcoming midterm elections.
On the Democratic side, House and Senate members quickly jumped on Trump’s comments.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was appalled by the comments, and urged Republicans to offer a concrete response like increasing sanctions on Russia, compelling Trump’s national security team to testify before Congress or ceasing criticism of the special counsel investigation.
“For the president of the United States to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defense officials, American intelligence agencies is thoughtless. It’s dangerous. It’s weak. The president is putting himself over our country,” he said.
Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said Russian meddling will continue to be a threat.
“This challenge and threat will not go away,” Warner said. “I think there are times in the Senate when people have to step up and say what side you’re on. This is one of those times.”
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, urged the GOP to “take off the blinders.”
Former CIA Director John O. Brennan went further.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to [and] exceeds the threshold of “high crimes [and] misdemeanors,” he said in a tweet. “It was nothing short of treasonous.”
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