After President Trump appeared to side with Russia over his own intelligence community, Republican leaders in Congress did something remarkable, for this political moment at least: They openly considered ways to rein in Trump's pro-Russian tendencies.
Options that Republican leaders floated the day after the Helsinki summit included forcing Trump to impose more sanctions on Russia, or passing a bill to punish Russia if it tries to interfere in the November midterm elections, or having the State Department consider declaring Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
“I'm more than happy to consider those,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Tuesday on sanctions.
“There's a possibility we may well take up legislation again,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters on the other side of the Capitol hours later, while refusing to specifically criticize Trump's actions.
But whatever momentum there may have been among Republicans to challenge their president — and some outside experts question whether there truly ever was any — was probably blunted when Trump amended two letters in his 46-minute news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The sentence should have been 'I don't see any reason it wouldn't be Russia,' ” Trump told reporters Tuesday, around the same time McConnell was musing about voting on election-interference legislation.
Despite all the reasons not to take Trump's revised statement seriously, his clarification seemed good enough for some of his critics.
“I wish he said it in front of President Putin and the world yesterday,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said Tuesday in a Fox News interview. “But I take him at his word if he said he misspoke, absolutely.”
“I'm just glad he clarified it,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has a bill to punish Russia for election interference, told CNBC's John Harwood.
No one in Congress is taking their anti-Russian legislation off the table as a result of Trump's “clarification,” but there's not as much urgency to act anymore. This is a Congress that almost exclusively makes tough decisions when it's flailing over the cliff's edge. The government has shut down two times this year alone under Congress's watch.
“I’ll need to see some additional evidence before I take seriously the ideas that either McConnell or Ryan floated today,” said Molly Reynolds, a congressional expert at Brookings Institution.
Of course, Congress has flexed its muscle on Trump and Russia before, and there's one political reason Republicans might want to act again.
Last summer, Congress handed Trump a veto-proof majority bill on Russia sanctions and forced him to sign it. It was one of the only high-profile bipartisan things Congress has done since Trump became president, and it remains one of Republicans' only significant legislative challenges to Trump. Many of those lawmakers who voted for it are no doubt grateful that their vote doesn't seem to be a major talking point in their pro-Trump GOP primaries back home.
If Congress does pass more sanctions against Russia in response to Trump being so deferential to Putin, watch to see whether those sanctions actually have teeth, like whether they target Putin's inner circle, said Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School.
"It is very likely that Congress will enact new sanctions against Russia," he predicted.
Reynolds theorized that if Republicans in Congress focus on a get-tough-on-Russia response, they could be seen as sidestepping the other troubling part of Trump's news conference with Putin: his doubt and even disparagement of the U.S. intelligence community.
Confronting Trump on the intelligence community is a much thornier path for Republicans in Congress to navigate. There are a number of House Republicans — and at least one high-profile senator — who share Trump's extreme skepticism of the FBI and Justice Department. Some House Republicans have drafted articles of impeachment against the Justice Department official who oversees the special counsel probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. A few weeks ago, a majority of House Republicans voted to force Rosenstein to hand over sensitive Justice Department documents to Congress.
In the Senate, McConnell has shut down the idea of voting on a bipartisan bill to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, even though Trump has made very clear he has been tempted to fire Mueller.
Democrats have said they're on board with sanctions, too, but they think that's just the first step Congress should take. They want Congress to make Trump demand Russia extradite the 12 Russians accused of hacking into Democrats' campaign emails, and they want Trump to share details of his closed-door, aide-free meeting with Putin. At least one high-profile Senate candidate, Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.), says he thinks Congress should move to impeach Trump over Helsinki.
It's likely that none of the items on Democrats' wish list is happening, at least while Republicans control both the House and the Senate. Not helping the notion of bipartisan action after Helsinki is the fact that Democrats obviously think pressing Trump on Russia will play to their advantage in the midterms.
If Congress feels compelled to do something to hold Trump accountable, the most likely course will be focusing on a get-tough approach to Russia. But given Congress's track record of ducking going after Trump, that's a big if.