President Donald Trump’s much-maligned performance at Monday’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin has deepened the Republican Party’s divide between traditional security hawks who want to stand up to Russia and conservatives who want to stay loyal to the president.
Democrats and several high-ranking Republicans condemned Trump’s comments in Helsinki, saying he accepted Putin’s assertions there was no Russian government-ordered campaign to swing the 2016 election in his favor, despite assessments to the contrary by the U.S. intelligence community.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona led the charge, saying in a statement Monday that “no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said he received phone calls until “late last night from people about various ways of dealing with it.”
The Tennessee Republican 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.”
Watch: Trump Says He ‘Misspoke’ on Russian Election Meddling
The other side
Trump on Tuesday attempted some damage control, telling reporters he had “full faith” in the U.S. intelligence community and that he misspoke in Helsinki when he said he saw no reason Russia would have meddled in the 2016 elections.
But some of the president’s most loyal backers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday defended Trump’s remarks while blaming President Barack Obama for not doing more to push back on Russian election interference when he was in office. Others went so far as to criticize the questions asked by American reporters at the Helsinki press conference, which they argued placed Trump in a difficult position in front of Putin.
“I think President Trump has done a great job in going over and meeting with Putin,” said Senate Armed Services member David Perdue of Georgia, one of the president’s biggest boosters. “What he says coming out of that [the press conference], I think, is minor news relative to the bigger picture, and that is we are re-engaging with someone in the world that can be very dangerous and we have to engage with them.”
At their monthly press conference, House Freedom Caucus members fielded roughly 30 minutes of questions on the Helsinki summit.
Asked if in the wake of the summit he was worried about Russia’s potential to interfere in future U.S. elections, which the nation’s top intelligence official last Friday said was a significant threat, Rep. Warren Davidson instead criticized ex-intelligence officials such as former CIA Director John Brennan, former FBI Director James Comey and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who have all strongly criticized Trump.
“They’ve become the most partisan people in the country, attributing great success to the former KGB operative, Vladimir Putin, meanwhile undermining confidence in our own president,” said the first-term Republican lawmaker from Ohio. “If there’s anything treasonous that has gone on, it’s that active operation right now to sow distrust among our own nation [about] our duly elected president.”
Rep. Andy Harris argued the “world is a safer place today” because the leaders of the world’s two largest nuclear powers had met face-to-face, adding he preferred Trump’s handling of Russia over Obama’s, whose foreign policy he described as an “abject failure.”
Harris also criticized reporters at the Helsinki conference for keeping their questions focused on Russian election interference and whether Putin had any rumored compromising material on Trump. He would rather have seen questions about extending the New START treaty or relations with China.
“They asked about election collusion,” the Maryland Republican said. “That’s the problem. This wasn’t a press conference. A press conference is where you discuss real issues. You have the opportunity, two of the world’s superpowers, and instead the question is, ‘Gee, do you have anything on the president?’ That’s not the way the press ought to conduct itself.”
For many establishment Republicans, there were signs Tuesday of a desire to send a tough message to Russia amid concerns that Trump’s summit performance undermined broader U.S. efforts to deter further election and military interference by Russia.
Senate Foreign Relations member Cory Gardner in April sponsored a bipartisan bill, currently awaiting committee consideration, that would require the State Department to determine whether Russia meets the standard for being characterized as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Colorado Republican told reporters he felt that designation was warranted based on Russia’s “cyber-attacks against the United States, interference in the elections and also the fact that they have carried out a chemical attack on allied soil.” The United States has joined the United Kingdom in accusing Russia of being behind this year’s Novichok nerve agent attack, which killed one person and badly sickened several more in England.
And Sens. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Marco Rubio of Florida have a bipartisan bill before the Banking Committee that would impose mandatory sanctions on some of Russia’s biggest banks and oil firms if any further election interference is detected.
Majority Whip John Cornyn indicated the Senate could take up Russia-related bills in the coming weeks.
“I think what we ought to focus on is additional sanctions rather than just some messaging exercise,” the Texas Republican said. “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.
As far as when a floor vote may happen on new sanctions, Cornyn said, “We’re not that far off.”
Jennifer Shutt and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.