Most congressional Republicans do not publicly criticize President Donald Trump even when they privately disagree with him. Monday was an exception.
Trump’s joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday provoked outrage, disappointment, and just plain befuddlement among members of the president’s party.
“The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement, a sentiment that was widely echoed by his Republican colleagues. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."
A seemingly exasperated Trey Gowdy began his statement with a reminder to Trump that “Russia is not our friend.” Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted that “Vladimir Putin is not our friend.” And just in case the message wasn’t clear, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters “The Russians are not our friends.”
There was good reason for the reminder.
Standing alongside Putin onstage Monday following their private meetings, Trump signaled that he believed Putin’s denials of interfering in the 2016 election, even as the American intelligence community has been unequivocal in its conclusions otherwise.
"My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, some others, they said they think it's Russia,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question. “I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."
It wasn't the first time Trump has expressed skepticism about the intelligence community’s findings, but it was extraordinary to do so on foreign soil with the world watching both leaders closely.
The Republican admonitions even prompted the usually headstrong president to attempt to reframe the summit via Twitter on Air Force One.
Trump perhaps was sensitive to the fact that he had publicly undermined members of his own administration. Coats, a former Republican senator whom Trump appointed director of national intelligence, said just last week that Russian was the "most aggressive foreign actor, no question,” in their cyberattacks against the United States. “They continue their efforts to undermine our democracy," he said in a speech at the Hudson Institute.
Following Trump’s remarks on Monday, Coats issued a statement saying the intelligence community has "been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."
Trump’s deference to Putin over his own intelligence community appeared to disturb his Republican allies and critics alike. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who has been largely supportive of the Trump administration, said she was “deeply troubled by President Trump’s defense of Putin against the intelligence agencies of the U.S. & his suggestion of moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russia.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona delivered the most extraordinary rebuke of the president, calling his joint press conference “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory” and that “[n]o prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” McCain has been a frequent critic of the president, but this rebuke went beyond past statements.
Despite the outrage and condemnation, however, Republicans did not suggest they'd do anything beyond issue statements. No Republicans called for hearings, further investigations, or suggested legislation that would constrain Trump’s relationship with Russia. They did not threaten to withhold their votes on critical issues or nominees in order to get answers or action from the administration about Russia.
With Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, Democrats are powerless to do anything on their own. That didn't stop them from speaking out, however, as the party’s leaders said Trump’s relationship with Putin strongly suggests that the Russian president is actively blackmailing the U.S. president, a dark and conspiratorial accusation that leans in to the unproven findings of the Steele dossier.
“President Trump’s weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that departed from her recent “wait-and-see” posture when it came to the Russia investigation. “We don’t really know what Mueller has. We have a responsibility, if we have information, to act upon it. But we don’t know what Mueller has,” she told Rolling Stone recently.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York was more circumspect but said that Trump’s behavior will make millions of Americans “wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.”
Some Republicans admitted that Trump’s behavior fed such a narrative. Former White House press secretary for George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, took to Twitter to say so:
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo during a meeting at the Presidential Palace. Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Alexei Nikolsky\TASS via Getty Images)