By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Nicholas Fandos and Thomas Kaplan
WASHINGTON – For nearly two years, Republicans have watched uncomfortably, and often in silence, as President Donald Trump has swatted away accusations that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential race, attacked his own intelligence agencies and flattered President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
On Monday, even for members of his own party, Trump apparently went too far.
The president’s extraordinary news conference with Putin in Helsinki stunned Republicans across the ideological spectrum and the party’s political apparatus, leaving them struggling to respond after the president undermined his national intelligence director, blamed both the United States and Russia for poor relations between the two countries and seemingly agreed to Putin’s suggestion that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, cooperate with Russia.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and Trump adviser, declared the news conference “the most serious mistake of his presidency.” Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and current Senate candidate from Utah, called it “disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles.”
The effect extended far beyond official Washington. One local official – Chris Gagin, chairman of the Republican Party in Belmont County, Ohio – resigned his post, announcing on Twitter that he “did so as a matter of conscience, and my sense of duty.” Neil Cavuto, a Fox Business Network host, called Trump’s performance “disgusting,” adding, “I’m sorry, it’s the only way I feel. It’s not a right or left thing to me, it’s just wrong.”
Yet no Republican in Congress pledged any particular action to punish Trump, such as holding up his nominees or delaying legislation, nor did any Republican promise hearings or increased oversight.
It was left to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, to demand action. He called for increased sanctions on Russia; for Trump’s national security team to testify before Congress; for defense of the Department of Justice and other intelligence agencies; and for Trump to press Putin to extradite the 12 Russian intelligence agents who were indicted Friday.
“In the entire history of our country, Americans have never seen a president of the United States support an adversary the way President Trump has supported President Putin,” Schumer said.
He added: “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. The only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.”
Republican leaders largely tempered their remarks, confining their backhanded comments to denunciations of Russia and expressions of faith in U.S. intelligence agencies. But even they appeared to have given up hope that they could shape the actions of an erratic and unpredictable president.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, concluded that Trump was unable to distinguish between the fact that Russia had interfered in the election and the accusation – as yet unproven – that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia.
“In the president’s mind, I think he’s conflating different things – the meddling and the collusion allegations for which there does not appear to be any evidence,” Cornyn said.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who has defended Trump amid the Russia inquiry, was not quite as charitable: “I understand in the bigger picture the president genuinely feels that he can establish better relations with Russia the way Nixon did with China,” King said in an interview, “but the nuance eludes him.”
And as to Trump’s openness to having Russia cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, King said, “It would be like bringing ISIS into a joint terrorism task force,” using an alternative name for the Islamic State militant group.
At least one Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, veered from the script and delivered a full-throated defense of Trump: “I think it’s a good idea to have engagement, and I guess I don’t quite understand all of the people who have gone completely deranged criticizing the president.”
Elected Republicans have been uneasy about Trump’s unorthodox views toward Russia and his willingness to embrace Putin since Trump first grabbed the attention of the party as its primary contest heated up in summer 2015. Many thought that once he was in office, surrounded by Washington’s national security experts, Trump would adopt the wary stance that has guided previous U.S. presidents.
Instead, time and again he has defied those expectations, as he repeatedly called into question the collective conclusions of the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies, and ignored his own advisers’ advice in seeking a personal relationship with Putin.
For most Republicans on Capitol Hill and around the country, Trump’s stance toward Putin, coupled with his recent attacks on U.S. allies in Europe, have presented a challenge: either defend the post-World War II international order, and risk angering a president who is immensely popular with their voters, or hold their tongues.
That challenge is especially tricky for Republican leaders, who must work closely with Trump and are especially reluctant to criticize him in public.
Hours passed Monday before Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, commented. During a rare hallway interview in the Capitol, he uttered three terse sentences: “The Russians are not our friends. I’ve said that repeatedly, I say it again today. And I have complete confidence in our intelligence community and the findings that they have announced.” He refused to answer questions.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was a bit more pointed. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” he said in a carefully worded statement. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
Democrats wanted more than carefully calibrated statements.
“This is a disgraceful moment. The president’s party knows better,” John Kerry, the former secretary of state and senator, wrote in a statement. “America needs them to speak out with clarity and conviction not just in this news cycle, but until there’s common sense governing America’s foreign policy.”
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, suggested on Twitter that if Republicans “were serious,” they would pass a long-stalled legislation protecting the jobs of special counsels such as Mueller.
But Republican leaders did not appear ready to go beyond measured phrases. Cornyn told reporters that it was “wishful thinking” to expect Putin to agree to the extradition of the 12 Russian agents. “Much of what Sen. Schumer’s asking for, I think we’ve already done,” he added.
As Republican leaders struggled to come up with tactful ways to respond to a stunning news conference, responses from some of their colleagues signified a moment when Republicans could not defend their president.
McCain’s was undoubtedly the harshest.
“It is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout – as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience,” said McCain, who has brain cancer.
“But these were not the errant tweets of a novice politician,” he continued. “These were the deliberate choices of a president who seems determined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putin’s regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule, his violent disregard for the sovereignty of his neighbors, his complicity in the slaughter of the Syrian people, his violation of international treaties and his assault on democratic institutions throughout the world.”
McCain’s fellow Republican senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, released his own rebuke: “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. This is shameful.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, struck a mournful tone: “Sadly President Trump did not defend America to the Russian president, and for the world to see. Instead, what I saw today was not ‘America First,’ it was simply a sad diminishment of our great nation.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a frequent critic of Trump, echoed the sentiment. “Everyone in this body should be disgusted by what happened in Helsinki today,” he said Monday in a speech on the Senate floor.
Even for congressional Republicans used to avoiding commenting on the president’s outbursts, Trump’s performance in Helsinki was difficult to ignore. For those who are accustomed to speaking out against Trump, and those whose impending retirements have freed them to do so, it was yet another occasion for public hand-wringing.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the retiring chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he “did not think this was a good moment for our country.”
It was, he added, a very good moment for Putin.
“It was almost an approval, if you will, a public approval by the greatest nation on earth toward him,” Corker told reporters. “I’d guess he’s having caviar right now.”