POLITICS
07/17/2018 02:24 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2018

Republicans Quick To Slam Russian Interference, Less So To Call Out Trump

GOP leaders defended U.S. intelligence, but most failed to directly condemn Trump's Putin-friendly remarks.

The bizarre press conference Monday between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin drew heated criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Many Republicans were quick to call out Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and to defend the U.S. intelligence community ― though fewer were willing to directly condemn Trump’s Putin-friendly rhetoric.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said during the press conference Monday in Helsinki, Finland.

This unprecedented decision by a U.S. president to publicly side with a foreign adversary over the country’s intelligence agencies and several congressional committees elicited only tepid rebukes from GOP leadership.

Timid Pushback

Like many Republican lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indirectly pushed back on Trump’s comments by blasting Russia and standing by U.S. intelligence.

“The Russians are not our friends,” McConnell said Monday. “I’ve said that repeatedly, I say it again today. And I have complete confidence in our intelligence community and the findings that they have announced.”

On Tuesday, the majority leader gave reporters a bit more: “To our European friends, we value the NATO treaty, the most significant military alliance in world history. We believe the European Union countries are our friends, the Russians are not.”

McConnell also raised the possibility that there would be congressional action on another Russia sanctions bill.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) followed suit on Monday with a response likely more palatable to the president.

“The intelligence community, including the House Intelligence Committee, has looked extensively into Russian election meddling in the United States,” McCarthy said in a statement. “I fully support their findings and their work to hold those responsible to account.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) offered even softer pushback, stating that he disagreed with Putin but felt engaging with him was “necessary.”

“Engaging with even somebody as evil as Putin is necessary,” Cornyn said in a statement. “The way I interpret it is the president was trying to maintain some rapport with him. ... I agree with our intelligence officials that they did attempt to meddle in the election.”

Dozens more Republican lawmakers echoed these statements, including senior Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), as well as Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Bill Flores (R-Texas).

Others, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Trump loyalist, tweeted cryptic responses to the press conference.

Fiery Condemnation

Peppered among GOP lawmakers’ Russian-aimed responses were a few direct blows to Trump.

“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. “Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are — a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she was “stunned” by Trump’s failure to hold Putin accountable, while Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) told CNN he felt Trump had been “manipulated” by Russian intelligence.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) dubbed Trump’s decision to hold both countries responsible for poor U.S.-Russia relations as “bizarre” and “flat-out wrong.”

“The United States is not to blame,” he said in a statement. “America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Trump’s comments “demonstrate his continued refusal to accept the unanimous conclusions of U.S. intelligence leaders and the bipartisan findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee.”

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) dubbed the press conference as “missed opportunity” by Trump to stand up to Putin.

Some of the most blistering responses came from Republican lawmakers who have, unsurprisingly, spoken out against Trump in the past. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) called Trump a “diplomatic wrecking ball” in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Monday.

Trump is “going to have to come out and say, ‘I made a terrible mistake. I’m sorry I did it. I’m going to listen to my intelligence people,’” Kasich said.

“We need more people to just not say a few things or put out a few tweets, but they need to take an aggressive position,” said Kasich, encouraging more GOP lawmakers to speak out against Trump. “Are some of them finally going to say, ‘This is enough?’”

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), both vocal critics of Trump, skewered the summit.

Putin “gained a tremendous amount,” Corker said. “Here he has been ostracized on the world stage. … It was almost an approval, if you will, a public approval by the greatest nation on earth towards him. … I would guess he’s having caviar right now.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, was less aggressive in her response than some of fellow party members, though she still called out Trump.

“There’s no question that they meddled in our election, and all evidence points to Putin’s direct involvement,” Rodgers said in a statement. “In order to put America first, the president must hold Russia accountable for their adversarial actions and their continued efforts to undermine our democratic institutions. 

Like Rodgers, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was measured in his criticism, suggesting “the president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.”

For some Republicans, the Helsinki summit marked a shift in their often unwavering support of Trump. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), one of 18 GOP lawmakers to nominate Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize, urged the president “to treat the Russian threat seriously and aggressively work to counter these actions in the future.”

Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers were unfazed by Trump’s decision to throw the intelligence agencies under the bus in favor of wooing Putin.

Summit Applause

Several Republicans, including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), publicly defended Trump’s remarks at the press conference.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) chalked up all the negative response to the summit as “Trump derangement syndrome,” a right-wing phrase meant to suggest liberals will irrationally dislike Trump’s actions no matter what he does.

“I think Trump is different in that he’s willing to meet with foreign leaders,” Paul told “PBS NewsHour” on Monday. “I think this really shows people’s hatred for President Trump more than anything.”

Paul may be one of only a few Republicans applauding the summit, but his praise for the president scored him a shoutout on Trump’s Twitter page.

The story has been updated with further comment from McConnell.

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