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WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans on Tuesday scrambled to react to President Trump’s eye-popping remarks during his joint press conference a day earlier with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with most continuing to distance themselves from the president’s comments casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“Vladimir Putin does not share our interests. Vladimir Putin does not share our values,” Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said at the House GOP leadership weekly press conference. “…They did interfere in our elections. It’s really clear. There should be no doubt about that.”
The House passed tough sanctions against Russia to hold it accountable for its meddling in the election, Ryan said. “What we intend to do is to make sure that they don’t get away with it again,” he added.
Ryan, however, said that he doesn’t agree with former CIA Director John Brennan that Trump’s remarks were “treasonous.”
Other Republicans were more directly critical of the president. “You could say it’s embarrassing, but I don’t think that does it sufficient justice…” said retiring Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa.. “I haven’t seen anything that was so weak and so pathetic as that press conference.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a frequent Trump critic, said Tuesday that while Hill Republicans have been able to work with the president in the past, with Monday’s remarks, the “dam is breaking.”
He also told reporters he’s hoping to have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next Thursday, where he plans to ask about Russia.
Other GOP members defended the president’s performance. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., praised Trump for speaking with Putin. “The president bravely went out and did what Ronald Reagan did,” he told Fox News. “You meet with your adversary… I commend him for the meeting.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, also came to Trump’s defense. “I think the president did a good thing by meeting with Putin, and I think it’s a mistake for people to try to turn this into a partisan escapade,” Paul told CBS. His assessment of the various areas of the Mueller probe as “totally partisan investigations” earned the president’s Twitter gratitude: “Thank you, @RandPaul,” he wrote.
The White House circulated talking points on Capitol Hill that referred to the Helsinki meeting as a politically brave move that was “part of a long tradition of diplomacy and dialogue between the United States and Russia.” Congressional supporters, the White House said in the memo first reported by The Washington Post, should note that president had spent much of his time with Putin “talking about Russian interference in American elections and other disagreements,” and say that Trump had expressed “great confidence” in his intelligence agencies at Monday’s press conference.
Meanwhile, some Republicans tried to avoid the issue altogether: Rank and file members of the House GOP said that they didn’t touch on the issue inside their closed-door conference meeting Tuesday morning.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said House Republicans haven’t abandoned the president, suggesting that Trump could have been tougher with Putin behind closed doors than he was in front of the cameras.
“I think the conference is comfortable with President Trump and his general policies,” said Barton, who is also retiring at the end of the term. “What we don’t know is what happened in the private meeting. I know President Trump and Vice President Pence personally and I’m sure behind closed doors Trump was pretty emphatic about some things and in public he was either silent or much softer.”