Politics

Senators Eye New Russia Sanctions as Trump Defends Putin Summit

Corker on GOP unity with Trump: 'It feels like the dam is breaking'

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker says a few senators are crafting a resolution to call out President Donald Trump’s Helsinki performance, but he acknowledged such measures “don’t do anything.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As some senators discuss slapping new sanctions on Moscow, President Donald Trump is defending his widely panned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, tweeting he had a “great” meeting with NATO allies but an “even better” one with the Russian president.

While Trump and his team recover from a turbulent weeklong European swing in which the president attacked longtime American allies and dismissed the consensus findings of the U.S. intelligence community, one Republican senator said he senses GOP lawmakers’ insistence on standing by Trump no matter what could be weakening.

It was mostly business as usual on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, just one day after Trump stood alongside Putin in Helsinki and sided with the Russian strongman over his own intelligence services while also calling the Justice Department probe into possible Moscow-Trump campaign collusion a “disaster.” The House was working on spending and other bills, while the Senate continued to process Trump’s nominees.

[Analysis: Congress Mere Passenger in Trump Foreign Policy Express]

The White House has essentially gone silent since Trump and Putin left the stage inside Finland’s presidential palace Monday around midday, Eastern time. The president broke that silence with several tweets Tuesday morning, including one doubling down on what happened in Helsinki.

“While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia,” Trump tweeted, accusing the “Fake News” of “going Crazy!” with its Helsinki fallout coverage.

Moments before, several senators told reporters there is a discussion — but nothing more so far — about legislation that would impose new sanctions on Russia.

“Sanctions, sanctions, sanctions,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, among a handful of red-state Democrats for whom criticizing Trump is potentially risky business, said when asked what lawmakers should do after the president’s Putin summit stumble. He described as “damaging” Trump’s dismissing of U.S. intelligence agencies on foreign soil while standing beside a man members of both parties and intel officials consider a U.S. adversary.

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner applauded the GOP members who expressed concern over Trump’s remarks, saying more Republicans have spoken out now compared to  previous Trump controversies.

“But simply putting out a statement is not enough,” the Virginia Democrat said Tuesday. “If Congress doesn’t act, then I think we give a signal to the rest of the world that this is the new American policy, a policy that embraces Putin and all he represents.”

Warner, who along with Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr of North Carolina is leading the panel’s ongoing Russia election meddling probe, said senators are “exploring what options” they have to respond.

“I hope it would be stronger than a sense of the Senate,” he said, referring to a nonbinding measure that would not propose new Russia sanctions or try to check presidential foreign policy powers. He added that the group hopes to roll out something “shortly.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn indicated Tuesday that the Senate may vote on additional Russian sanctions in the coming weeks.

[The House Democrats Considering Leadership Bids — So Far]

“I think what we ought to focus on is additional sanctions rather than just some messaging exercise,” the Texas Republican said, noting that Colorado GOP Sen. Cory Gardner is working on some type of package. “That was one of the things Sen. [Charles E.] Schumer mentioned where I think we could find common ground to turn the screws.”

Schumer, a New York Democrat and the chamber’s minority leader, told reporters Monday that there should be an effort to “ratchet up” sanctions against Russia under President Vladimir Putin, in contrast to the posture taken during the Monday news conference by Trump.

As far as when a floor vote may happen on new sanctions, Cornyn said, “We’re not that far off.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said he received phone calls until “late last night from people about various ways of dealing with it.”

Watch: What Summit? A Muted GOP Response, Then Back to Business on the Hill

“I know a number of pieces of legislation we might consider looking at,” the Tennessee Republican said without offering specific names. “He’s taxing us, pushing away our allies … and that is to Putin’s benefit.” (The tax comment referred to the president’s tariff war with allies and countries such as China.)

Corker said “a few senators” are crafting a resolution to call out Trump’s Helsinki performance, but he acknowledged such measures “don’t do anything.” He wants the chamber to instead take up his legislation that would “take back authorities” under which Trump has cited national security threats when imposing tariffs on allies and challengers.

The retiring Foreign Relations chairman, once eyed by Trump as a possible running mate or secretary of State, said he senses a shift after the Helsinki press conference.

“It feels like the dam is breaking. I was really glad to see [members] on both sides of the aisle condemning what happened,” he said, adding he has supported much of Trump’s domestic agenda. “But I think on the foreign policy piece, there’s significant concerns and have been, and you’re finally seeing people speak out forcefully.”

But when asked if he senses enough political will on Capitol Hill to send the president a bill putting him on the spot on Russia, Tester replied: “I don’t know.”

As members of both parties search for a way to check Trump — and Putin as intelligence officials warn of Russian meddling in the November midterms — one of his loyalists is advising against the White House hoping the controversy blows over. Anthony Scaramucci, who was White House communications director for 11 days, told CNN on Tuesday that the president should try to clarify his remarks “immediately.”

Corker, however, suggested the matter could — like so many others in the Trump era — quickly fade away.

“Things change around here so rapidly,” he said. “It’s become like a reality show. So who knows what next happens, something could happen in two hours. … Right now, I sense a lot of discouraged folks.”

Jennifer Shutt and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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