Policy

Lawmakers Condemn Trump Over News Conference With Putin

Republican calls it ‘shameful’ while Democrat says trip was ‘one giant middle finger... to his own country’

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at Helsinki International Airport on Sunday ahead of Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

As President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin left their joint press conference in Monday in Helsinki, Finland, to continue with their slate of meetings, lawmakers back home in Washington sent a resounding rebuke across the Atlantic to the president.

Perhaps loudest in his criticism of Trump was one of the most prominent members of his own party: Arizona Sen. John McCain.

“It is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout — as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience” on the part of Trump, McCain said in a scathing 364-word statement criticizing the president.

Trump made “a conscious choice to defend a tyrant” from the press’s questions and seemed hellbent on affirming his vision of “a warm relationship with Putin’s regime,” McCain said.

Trump and Putin talked alone behind closed doors for more than two hours, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. The one-on-one with Putin was “a very good start for everybody,” Trump told reporters at a working lunch after the initial meeting.

At a news conference around 11 a.m. EDT Monday, Trump dodged a question from a Reuters reporter on how he held Russia accountable for strained relations between the two countries at his meeting with Putin.

Watch: Next to Putin, Trump Defies Intel on Russian Election Interference

Trump did not list any areas or issues where he felt Russia had crossed a line.

“I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish ... we’re all to blame,” Trump said.

Asked whether he believes the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that the man standing next to him at the podium, Putin, was responsible for directing a hacking and influence campaign to undermine the 2016 elections, Trump equivocated.

"I don't see any reason why it would be [Russia]," the president said.

Democrats were apoplectic at the president’s responses.

"This entire trip has just been one giant middle finger from President Trump to his own country," Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted. "Just jaw dropping."

“Russia attacked our democracy, murders people around the world with impunity, seized territory from a sovereign nation and shot down an airplane full of civilians. But @realDonaldTrump holds ‘both countries responsible,’” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon tweeted.

“This is a national embarrassment,” he said.

GOP Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were critical of Trump's performance as well.

"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," Flake tweeted. "This is shameful."

Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, repeatedly told reporters Monday he was "saddened" by Trump's performance answering questions from reporters at the press conference.

Trump's assertions that both Russia and the U.S. are to blame for the fraught relationship between the two countries "make us look like a pushover," Corker said.

"I did not think this was a good moment for our country," Corker said. At times, he added, the president "cares more about how a leader treats him personally" than how that leader's policies align with U.S. interests.

Graham characterized the press conference as a "missed opportunity" for Trump to "firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections," he tweeted.

"This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves," Graham wrote.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin issued a statement Monday urging Trump to "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," Ryan said. "The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."

Leading up to the summit, Democrats — and a handful of Republicans — hammered Trump for even agreeing to meet with Putin less than a week after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III handed out indictments to 12 Russians for interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections using methods that included hacking email accounts from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Sen. Ben Sasse called the Russian leader a “crook,” “liar,” “murderer,” “enemy of America” and “KGB thug” who “ordered the influence operations that have been exposed in the most recent indictments,” the Nebraska Republican tweeted in a lengthy thread Sunday night.

“He sees us as his main enemy and is engaged in ongoing attacks on our nation through information warfare and hacking our infrastructure,” said Sasse, who has been critical of his party’s leader. “It’s not just that he messed with our election in 2016; he attacks us regularly, and will again in 2018.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein indicated Sunday that Trump’s meeting with Putin meant he was not holding the Russian president accountable for interfering in the 2016 election.

Trump is “failing to protect our national security and the integrity of our democracy. Period,” the California Democrat said.

But at least one Republican applauded Trump for defying diplomatic norms and opening a dialogue with Putin.

“I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics,” Trump said in an opening statement at his press conference with Putin Monday.

GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tweeted out the quote, adding, “I couldn’t agree more.”

Just hours before the meeting — where Putin showed up an hour late, par for the course for his sit-downs with foreign leaders — Trump fired off a tweet in which he blamed U.S. “foolishness and stupidity” for the strained relations between the two countries — not Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine; its ongoing support of armed rebels in Eastern Ukraine to destabilize that region; the Russian government’s assassination of a Russian-United Kingdom double agent and his daughter in England; Putin’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is accused of committing war crimes against his own people in the civil war there; and the jailing and assassination of political dissidents and journalists at home and abroad.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” the president said.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which, along with its historical antecedents in the Soviet Union, has been at odds with the United States on the reasons behind U.S.-Russian animus for roughly a century, retweeted Trump, commenting, “We agree.”

That exchange drew heavy criticism from Democrats in the House and the Senate as the summit between Putin and Trump unfolded across the Atlantic.

No House Republicans have commented yet on the summit or Trump’s tweet this morning.

The president has “drawn us closer to Russia,” California Rep. Eric Swalwell tweeted Monday morning.

New York Rep. Gregory Meeks said the Trump administration is a “propaganda arm for the Kremlin.”

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee chose a more pithy response to Trump’s tweet.

On the Senate side, Trump’s morning tweet — and the Russian foreign ministry’s reaction to it — stole the show as lawmakers awaited more news from the meeting in Helsinki.

Democrats went on the offensive.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, referenced Russia’s elections interference as he chided Trump for his pro-Russia assessment of U.S.-Russian relations.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley listed counterpoints to the president’s assessment that “U.S. foolishness” and the investigations into Russia’s 2016 elections interference were the caused of strained relations between the two nations.

Trump and Putin will continue meeting along with different advisers throughout the day.

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