Lawmakers and media personalities from both parties roundly criticized President Donald Trump’s performance at a joint press conference Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But some House conservatives, who remained mostly silent immediately after that meeting, have managed to extract at least one silver lining from the Helsinki summit: At least there was one.
“The good news is there was a summit,” Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio said Tuesday at a panel on Capitol Hill with other members of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Davidson emphasized that Trump’s meeting with Putin “is consistent with efforts under George W. Bush and Barack Obama” to engage the mercurial Russian leader one-on-one and build a working relationship with him.
“Putin’s been in power for a long time in Russia, and … he’s been an adversary of the United States that entire time,” Davidson said. “I think it was good for the president to be engaged in diplomacy.”
Watch: What Summit? A Muted GOP Response, Then Back to Business on the Hill
The Republicans on the panel attempted to minimize the importance of the Trump-Putin press conference, which current and former GOP lawmakers have variously referred to as “shameful,” “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” and “the most serious mistake of his presidency.”
Despite numerous prompts from reporters, none of the GOP panelists could bring themselves to criticize Trump for his comments refuting the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia engaged in an extensive influence campaign in the 2016 election and siding with Putin as the Russian president denied that the Kremlin issued any such directives.
“I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2016, Trump said, standing mere feet from Putin.
But the House Republicans on the panel didn’t exactly give Trump’s performance at the press conference a resounding endorsement either.
“I think anyone who watched that press conference, including the president himself, would say that was not his finest hour,” Davidson said. “I don’t think anyone in the Freedom Caucus is going to say, ‘Hey, we thought that was an amazing press conference.’”
“But we support the fact that the president was there on the stage having the press conference and having the dialogue,” the congressman added. “He’s brought us to the point where we have a chance to make this a better path.”
House conservatives urged reporters to look beyond Trump’s press conference and highlight what they see as the president’s foreign policy wins in the U.S.-Russia sphere: negotiating a joint pullout of operations in Syria once the Islamic State militants have been eradicated there; imposing sanctions on Russian oligarchs connected to Putin; and ousting 60 Russian officials in the wake of a nerve agent attack against a double agent and his daughter in the United Kingdom.
Watch: Next to Putin, Trump Defies U.S. Intel on Russian Election Interference
“There’s times when foreign policy sounds bad and works good and there are times when it sounds good and works poorly,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina said. “I’d rather have the first than the latter.”
House conservatives, unlike some of the more moderate members of their conference and the Democrats, do not think Trump has fallen for Putin’s sway of personality, despite his apparent affinity for the Russian president.
“This president is great at reading people — he knows that Mr. Putin is not a choir boy,” South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman said. “[Putin] will do whatever he can to advance Russia.”
Trump met Tuesday with a handful of House Republicans to talk about taxes, but he was expected to address his time in Helsinki as well.