On Monday, in the wake of Donald Trump's bizarre press conference with Vladimir Putin where the US president indicated he believed the Russian autocrat over American intelligence agencies when it came to election hacking, Trump's fellow Republicans were shocked, shocked that he would say such a thing.
"The damage inflicted by Pres. Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate," said Arizona Senator John McCain in a statement. Mitt Romney, currently running for US Senate in Utah, said Trump's position "undermines our national integrity and impairs our global credibility." House Speaker Paul Ryan said, in what one imagines to be a very serious voice, "The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally." Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse called Trump's statement "bizarre and flat-out wrong," Michigan Congressman Justin Amash said "something is not right here," Arizona Senator Jeff Flake threw around the word "shameful," South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said it was a "missed opportunity." Tennessee Senator Bob Corker said it wasn't "a good moment for our country." Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele went even further:
All this might seem like a startling rebuke to a president by his own party. But it's actually just a fit of political theater by Republicans determined to have it both ways. They need all the other Serious People out there to know they are concerned with Trump's ignorant, unhinged rhetoric and the damage it is doing—SIR—to America's reputation and standing abroad. But they don't want to actually do anything about it beyond hitting send on a couple of tweets.
This is Trump's Republican Party, it has been for some time, and at this points objections to his foreign policy look half-hearted at best, and two-faced at worst.
While Monday's press conference was downright unnerving to people who want Trump to take a more muscular rhetorical stance toward Russia, it was exactly in line with what he's said about Putin for years. "At least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country," Trump said of the Russian strongman on Morning Joe way back in 2015. "I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There's a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity." Trump kept up the Putin hype all through the campaign and spent a long time denying Russians were behind the hacking of key Democrats in 2016; when he did admit it, he added a caveat: “Hacking’s bad, and it shouldn’t be done. But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.” (Of course, Trump seemed to be back on the denial train as of Monday.)
Trump's pro-Putin stance was so widely known that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy joked about Russians paying Trump in a June 2016 meeting the Washington Post obtained audio of last year. Ryan's response, captured on that audio, was to say, “No leaks... This is how we know we’re a real family here.” Congressional leaders were also briefed about the Russian hacking operations before the election, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics," according to the Post.
In other words, Republicans looked the other way when it came to Trump's Russia views, as they did when it came to so many other things, from his obvious policy ignorance to his racist rhetoric to his "grab 'em by the pussy" tape. With few exceptions, including, to be fair, Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, and Mitt Romney, prominent voices in the GOP declined to denounce Trump—and in Romney's case, he turned around and gladly accepted Trump's endorsement after being publicly humiliated by him. The GOP, by and large, has continued looking the other way: House Republicans are currently hard at work assisting Trump's attacks on the Mueller investigation by accusing the FBI of bias, which the president referenced during his press conference with Putin. In the Senate, McConnell has refused to introduce legislation that would protect Mueller from being fired by Trump, the very least Republicans concerned about their president possibly being in Putin's pocket might do.
According to Axios, even Trump's White House aides know how wrong and dumb he is on Russia and "are not proud of the man they work for." But none of them seem likely to resign. That's the attitude of Republican elites write large—it's obvious they're angry at Trump, maybe even ashamed, but they never get angry or ashamed enough to take action that would hurt him. They care that he praises Putin just like they probably care that he habitually defends white supremacists. But they don't care enough to break with him, just enough to occasionally voice criticism. And in large part they only do that much when they're stepping down from Congress, as Ryan, Corker, and Flake are.
"The Russians are not our friends,” McConnell told reporters on Monday. He might want to double-check that. The Russians are clearly Trump's friend, and McConnell is obviously Trump's friend, too. Last time I looked, the friend of your friend is your friend, too.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.
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