“Surreal.” “Extraordinary.” “Disgraceful.” Lawmakers in the U.S. and abroad appeared shell-shocked on Monday following President Trump’s press conference with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in which Trump again refused to condemn Putin for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, even going so far as to deny the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was responsible.
“I think we have both been foolish,” Trump said, when asked by a reporter whether he would hold Russia accountable “at all, for anything in particular.”
“We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, before I got to office,” Trump continued. “And I think we are all to blame.” Asked later whether he would denounce Russian interference and ask Putin to never do it again, Trump said he didn’t “see any reason why it would be Russia” that interfered, and began discussing the Democratic National Committee server that, according to the Justice Department, was hacked by Russian intelligence officers in 2016. “I really want to see the server,” Trump said, appearing to cast doubt on his administration’s conclusions. (The FBI obtained copies of the DNC server from the private firm hired to investigate the hack).
Trump has been famously reluctant to publicly accept the assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies that the Kremlin engaged in an influence operation designed to defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and put the New York real estate tycoon in the White House, calling the investigation into that interference a “witch hunt.” Yet the investigation into the Russian operation and potential ties to the Trump campaign has continued to produce indictments and even convictions of former Trump officials, including Trump’s former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Last May, Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, an act that ultimately prompted the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But while the president has subjected just about every player in the Russia investigation to some kind of belittling invective, he has consistently spared Putin from criticism. That fact is likely to draw even more scrutiny after Trump’s performance in Helsinki.
Trump’s remarks—made three days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment laying out in extraordinary detail how Russia’s military intelligence agency hacked Democratic organizations and timed the release of the stolen material to have the maximum impact on the election—drew rebukes both implicit and explicit from those close to, and within, Trump’s own administration.
The most significant response came from Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, who pushed back on Trump’s comments in a statement that was reportedly not cleared by the White House. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats said. Republican Senator Richard Burr, who chairs the intelligence committee, issued an even harsher statement, saying that “Vladimir Putin is not our friend and never has been. Nor does he want to be our friend. His regime’s actions prove it. We must make clear that the United States will not tolerate hostile Russian activities against us or our allies.”
At an event held by the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC-based foreign policy think tank, Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, along with members of parliament from Ukraine, Latvia, the Czech Republic and the U.K., communicated their firm belief to reporters that Congress would reject attempt by Trump to dramatically shift U.S. policy in favor of Russia. Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to challenge Trump, but on Russia matters, many have come out swinging along with their Democratic colleagues.
GOP Congressman Will Hurd, a former CIA official, told CNN that he had “seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people in my career. I never thought the U.S. president would be one of them.” Republican Senator John McCain, known for his opposition to Putin, called the press conference “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” and said that Trump had “abased himself … before a tyrant.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement that “the president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.” And, at the Atlantic Council, Rubio asserted that Trump’s comments about Russia were “not accurate” and that “any policy, and any rhetoric, not based” in the “reality” that Putin is not interested in a productive, working relationship with the U.S. “is counterproductive, dangerous, and will fail.”
Rubio also promoted legislation he had proposed with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen called the DETER Act, which, if passed, would allow the Director of National Intelligence to impose pre-existing sanctions on a foreign power if the intelligence community determined that that country interfered in a U.S. election. Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Trump’s comments “outrageous,” and said that in the coming days, members of Congress will “need to stand up and say which side we’re on.”
Still, the bipartisan condemnations may be of limited comfort to America’s allies in the post-Soviet sphere. “I think the U.S. Senate and government has spoken quite clearly about what the message should be,” said Jan Lipavsky, a member of parliament in the Czech Republic. “But it’s a message to us that we maybe need to put more into the alliance and stand more on our own feet … This is not the way the Russians should be dealt with.”
Ojars Kalnins, a member of parliament in Latvia, reiterated that the military threat posed by Russia “became very real after 2014,” when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. “But there has also always been a political threat, an attempt to undermine our democratic system from within.” Hanna Hopko, a Ukrainian lawmaker, appeared rattled by the president’s remarks, but did not call him out by name. “Everybody expected that there would be painful compromises,” she said, noting that Ukraine had watched the Trump-Putin press conference intently. “But it is important to see this very firm position from the U.S.: Crimea belongs to Ukraine.” Trump has not ruled out recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as legitimate.
Damian Collins, a Conservative member of parliament in the U.K. who is leading a parliamentary inquiry into Russia’s use of social media and tech companies to influence the Brexit vote, was blunt: “To deny the existence of evidence linking Russia to disinformation and interference is to say to countries that are the victim of this that they are on their own,” he said. Collins added that the world had seen “odd messages” from Trump over the last week. “On the one hand, Trump has said, ‘spend more on security,’ and ‘the influence of Russia on your country is too great.’” (Trump slammed Germany during last week’s NATO summit in Brussels, accusing them of relying too much on Russia for oil and gas.) “On the other hand, he says Russia is not interfering,” Collins continued. “So he’s saying, essentially, ‘if you defend yourself against Russia, you do it without my support.”
One of the more surreal moments of Trump’s joint press conference with Putin came when the Russian president acknowledged, for the first time, that he had wanted Trump to win. “Yes, I did. Yes, I did,” Putin said. “Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
That comment, Rubio said, was on its own an attempt to sow chaos in the U.S. Putin “clearly understood how saying, ‘I wanted Trump to win’ would play out in American politics,” the Florida Senator said. “He knows how to touch certain pressure points. He said that deliberately to stoke those fires.”