One of the Republican senators back from a trip to Moscow is suggesting that Congress went too far in punishing Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“I’ve been pretty upfront that the election interference — as serious as that was, and unacceptable — is not the greatest threat to our democracy,” Sen. Ron Johnson said in an interview with the Washington Examiner published over the weekend. “We’ve blown it way out of proportion.”
“We need to really honestly assess what actually happened, what effect did it have, and what effect are our sanctions actually having, positively and negatively,” the Republican from Wisconsin said.
Johnson won re-election in 2016, with President Donald Trump on the top of the ticket. He has said that the Senate may have gone too far with mandatory sanctions against a host of Russian entities, leaving Trump with too little negotiating room on other matters. He also said the sanctions did not appear to be working as intended.
Trump is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in Helsinki.
Other Republican senators on the trip returned to the United States with a much more strident tone, including Louisiana’s John Kennedy.
Kennedy said in a CNN interview Monday that the message for Russia was, “stop screwing with American elections.”
Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, another member of the all-GOP delegation, said their Russian counterparts pushed back whenever there were accusations made about the 2016 interference.
“The point of the visit was to indicate a willingness to begin dialogue. I think the interest in many of us, particularly as a Republican delegation — my view is that for Russians to hear that Republicans from the United States Senate believe that meddling occurred, that it needs to stop,” Moran told NPR. “And that’s a component criteria before any kind of relationship change can really occur that needs to come to an end.”
According to Johnson, when the Russian delegation was pushed on issues like the public release of private emails of 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, they would respond with charges about U.S.-backed media entities like Voice of America.
Johnson’s remarks to the Examiner were highlighted by Russian state media.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama led the trip, which took place during the Independence Day recess period. The Shelby group met with a number of senior Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“The United States does not want, nor does it need, to resume a Cold War posture with Russia, and our delegation trip was a small step towards trying to ensure that does not happen. We will always be competitors, but we do not have to be adversaries,” Shelby said in a statement. “Russia can achieve a better relationship with the U.S., but it has to be earned, one step at a time.”
On Monday, Kennedy called Lavrov, “a bully.”
“He impressed me as the sort of guy who started out in the world as a smartass and worked his way up,” said Kennedy.
While the delegation of U.S. lawmakers was overseas, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued an update on its findings so far in the ongoing investigation of Russian interference. The committee, on a bipartisan basis, backed up the findings of the intelligence community that Russia was meddling and did favor Trump over Clinton.
Johnson elaborated on his position in a Monday interview with WOSH-AM radio, in which he said there were more serious threats.
“We’ve had briefings on this — it’s very difficult to really meddle in our elections. It just is. These are locally run, it’s almost impossible to change the vote tally. My concern would be violating the voter files, but we have those issues anyway and there are plenty of controls on that,” he said. “You know from a standpoint of using social media we spent a couple of billion dollars on the last election, they maybe spent a couple hundred thousand.”
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