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Trump's defense of Russia prompts outrage from some Republicans

President Donald Trump, left, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, center, speak at a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, July 16, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Chris Ratcliffe
President Donald Trump, left, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, center, speak at a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, July 16, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Chris Ratcliffe
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President Donald Trump’s remarks at an extraordinary joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday prompted sharp rebukes from several Republican lawmakers — many of whom are retiring. Ailing Sen. John McCain delivered the strongest broadside, describing it as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

At the news conference, which took place after the first formal one-on-one summit between the two leaders, Trump refused to back the conclusion of U.S. intelligence of Russian interference in the 2016 election and attacked the probe being led by special counsel Robert Mueller as “a disaster for our country.”

Trump’s doubts about U.S. intelligence community while on foreign soil — as well as his insistence on accepting Putin’s denial on Russian interference — did not sit well with several Republicans.

Citing the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies as well as the House Committee on Intelligence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement that “there is no question” that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and continues to work against democracy in the U.S. and around the globe.

“The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” said Ryan, who is retiring at the end of his term. “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.”

Before being elected House speaker, Ryan was the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2012. During that campaign, Ryan’s running mate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, called Russia the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical foe.

The other top Republican on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had not weighed in at the time Ryan made his statement.

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Some of the most blistering criticism of Trump came from McCain, who has been absent from Congress since December as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer.

In a statement, the Arizona Republican said that Trump “proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin” and that the two leaders “seemed to be speaking from the same script” at Monday’s news conference.

“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake,” McCain said. He added that “no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

Several other GOP lawmakers exiting Congress next year criticized Trump in the wake of his tete-a-tete with Putin.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., an outspoken Trump skeptic who is not seeking reelection, was among the first to weigh in, calling the president’s performance in Helsinki “shameful.”

“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 said in a tweet.

Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., a retiring member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also took Trump to task on the issue of Russian interference, saying in a tweet that he strongly disagrees with Trump’s assertion.

“With all I have seen on House Intel Comm & additional indictments of 12 Russian officers last week, it is clear Russia’s intentions. President Trump missed opportunity to hold Putin publicly accountable,” he said.

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And Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee who is retiring, defended the Mueller investigation as “law enforcement doing work our country needs it to do.”

A handful of Republicans who are not retiring also pushed back against the president’s remarks on Monday.

Among the lawmakers denouncing Trump’s rejection of the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies was Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a military veteran, who tweeted: “It’s time to wake up & face reality.”

“The American people deserve the truth, & to disregard the legitimacy of our intelligence officials is a disservice to the men & women who serve this country,” Kinzinger said, adding that Putin “is not our friend; he’s an enemy to our freedom.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who has also been openly critical of Trump, called the president’s assertion that both the U.S. and Russia are to blame for the deterioration of bilateral relations “bizarre and flat-out wrong.”

“The United States is not to blame,” Sasse said in a statement. “America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that Trump’s statements on Monday “demonstrate his continued refusal to accept the unanimous conclusions of U.S. intelligence leaders and the bipartisan findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee,” on which Collins sits.

She called Trump’s position “untenable and at odds with the forceful response this moment demands.”

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Libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., similarly voiced reservations, saying in a tweet that “a person can be in favor of improving relations with Russia, in favor of meeting with Putin, and still think something is not right here.”

Some Republicans sent more complicated messages that weren’t as caustic as their colleagues.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading GOP voice on foreign policy who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the president, lamented Trump’s answer on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election as a “missed opportunity” to hold the Kremlin accountable and send a strong warning against any similar actions in the future.

“This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves,” Graham said in a tweet. He called for Congress to hold hearings probing the extent of any potential cooperation between Russia and Iran in Syria.

He also quipped about the souvenir soccer ball that Putin handed Trump during the news conference: “If it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House.”

But in a follow-up tweet, Graham sought to clarify that he has seen no evidence so far of any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016, arguing that “meddling & collusion are NOT the same thing” and that “Russia didn’t beat Clinton. Trump beat Clinton.”

Beyond Capitol Hill, denunciations of Trump’s remarks were even stronger.

Former CIA director John Brennan said on Twitter that Trump’s news conference “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’”

“It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???” Brennan said.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said of Trump’s defense of Russia: “That’s how a press conference sounds when an Asset stands next to his Handler.”

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And Abby Huntsman, the daughter of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, a Trump appointee, said on Twitter: “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”

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