WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins Monday defended President Trump's Russia-friendly summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying it's time for special counsel Robert Mueller to wrap up his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Meantime, Democrats – led by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer – lashed out at Trump, with Schumer indicating that the Russian strongman may be blackmailing the president of the United States.
The statements of Collins and Schumer, one terse and delivered via email, the other detailed and delivered in front of television cameras, highlighted the divide between many Republicans and virtually all Democrats over a U.S. president who has cozied up to Putin while denigrating longtime U.S. allies such as Canada, Great Britain and Germany.
"I share President Trump’s continued frustration as the left continues to try to nullify the 2016 Presidential election with claims of Russian interference," said Collins, a Republican from Clarence and one of Trump's strongest congressional backers for nearly 2 1/2 years.
"The fact is, any Russian meddling did not make a difference in the election, and there was no campaign collusion. It’s time the Mueller investigation comes to a conclusion," the Collins statement added. "I also urge the president to work with Congress to ensure any future Russian attempts to influence our elections are stopped at our border. Unfortunately, this is something the Obama administration failed to do."
In contrast, Schumer issued an early-afternoon statement that said, in part: "A single, ominous question now hangs over the White House: What could possibly cause President Trump to put the interests of Russia over those of the United States? Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump."
A somber Schumer later repeated that quote word-for-word at a news conference where he offered a detailed analysis of a Trump performance that the Democratic leader called "an insult to all Americans."
Schumer noted that on Friday, Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents, charging them with hacking Democratic email accounts in hopes of boosting Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
"The 29-page indictment is a document of unparalleled work and is exactly what the president needed to stand up to Putin. He should have marched in, put the indictment on the table, and demanded justice," Schumer said. "Rather than taking the opportunity to confront Putin, rather than taking the opportunity to demand that Putin hand over the named Russian intelligence agents indicted last week, the president sided with Vladimir Putin’s denial over the unanimous – unanimous – conclusion of the United States intelligence community. He took the word of the KGB over the men and women of the CIA."
Schumer then asked congressional Republicans to put partisanship aside and join Democrats in ratcheting up sanctions on Russia and demanding that Trump's foreign policy aides testify before Congress on the meeting with Putin. Schumer also asked Republicans to stop their attacks on the Mueller investigation and the officials and agencies involved in it, and to demand that the 12 Russians indicted last week be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial.
Collins and Schumer made their comments after a Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, Finland, in which the U.S. president cast doubts on the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia tried to influence the U.S. president election to benefit Trump.
“I don’t see any reason why” Russia would try to interfere in America's 2016 election, Trump said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand – like Schumer, a New York Democrat – offered an equally harsh reaction to Trump's performance.
"We just witnessed the president of the United States abdicate his national security responsibilities as commander-in-chief," Gillibrand said on Twitter. "When he was given the chance to hold Putin accountable and condemn Russia's interference in our elections, he refused."
And in a phone interview, Rep. Brian Higgins agreed with Schumer that Putin may have some information on Trump that is forcing the U.S. president to do something no U.S. president has ever done before.
"Sadly, the president of the United States and of the free world is being used by Russia's president as a propaganda tool," said Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat. "For the first time in history, the president of the United States defended a corrupt dictator instead of democracy."
Like Collins, another Trump backer, Republican Rep. Tom Reed of Corning, failed to answer a series of detailed questions about Trump's performance that The Buffalo News asked via email.
Instead, Reed issued a statement saying: “Russia is not our friend, and I have no doubt they have, and are trying to, meddle in our elections. However, there is no evidence of collusion with any American, and it is time for the Mueller probe to come to a close. By completing the investigation, we will restore faith in our democratic electoral process.”
Here are the questions The News asked both Collins and Reed:
- President Trump said today “I don’t see any reason why” Russia would try to interfere in America's 2016 election. What's more, the president did not dispute Putin's denials of that interference – even though America's intelligence agencies and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee have concluded that there was such interference. Do you, as a member of Congress, believe Russia interfered with the election? Why or why not? And if you think that Russia did interfere in the election, what did you think of the president's comments today?
- President Trump also said of the Mueller probe: “I think the probe has been a disaster for our country,” he said. “It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.” Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
- In recent weeks, Trump has been far more critical of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel than he has been of Vladimir Putin. Why do you think that is?
- Former CIA director John Brennan called Trump's performance today "treasonous," and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said: "Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.” What is your reaction to these comments?