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Trump’s defense of Russia prompts outrage from some Republicans

Both President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about Russian interference in U.S. elections at a 2018 news conference in Helsinki. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republicans rallied Monday to defend the U.S. intelligence community after President Trump placed more credibility in Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s pronouncements than the work of U.S. spy agencies.

Wary of challenging the top Republican, however, many stopped short of criticizing Trump himself or advocating concrete action against Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election.

At a joint news conference with Putin in Helsinki, which took place after the first formal one-on-one summit between the two leaders, Trump refused to back the conclusion of U.S. intelligence of Russian interference and attacked the probe being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as “a disaster for our country.”

Pushback against Trump’s remarks by members of his own party began as a few outraged statements, mostly from retiring lawmakers. But by late afternoon, those speaking out in defense of the intelligence community included House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Few, however, went as far as the president’s toughest GOP critic, Sen. John McCain, who described Trump’s appearance in Helsinki as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

Citing the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies as well as the House Intelligence Committee, Ryan said in a statement that “there is no question” that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and continues to work against democracy in the United States and around the globe.

“The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” said Ryan, who is retiring at the end of his term. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”

Before being elected House speaker, Ryan was the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012. During that campaign, Ryan’s running mate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, called Russia the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical foe.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) denounce President Trump's lack of response to Vladimir Putin's denial of election interference. (Video: Reuters)

Romney, who is seeking a Senate seat in Utah, said Trump’s decision to “side with Putin over American intelligence agencies is disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles.”

“Claiming a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia not only defies reason and history, it undermines our national integrity and impairs our global credibility,” Romney said in a statement.

In an exchange with reporters before walking into the Senate chamber Monday, McConnell also stood by U.S. intelligence agencies.

“As I have said repeatedly, the Russians are not our friends, and I entirely agree with the assessment of our intelligence community,” McConnell said.

Some of the most blistering criticism of Trump came from McCain, who has been absent from Congress since December as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer.

In a statement, the Arizona Republican said that Trump “proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin” and that the two leaders “seemed to be speaking from the same script” at Monday’s news conference.

“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake,” McCain said. He added that “no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a former CIA agent who is facing a tough reelection, also minced no words in a tweet after Trump’s news conference.

“I’ve seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career and I never would have thought that the US President would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands,” Hurd said.

Several GOP lawmakers exiting Congress next year also rebuked Trump in the wake of his tête-à-tête with Putin.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an outspoken Trump skeptic who is not seeking reelection, was among the first to weigh in, calling the president’s performance in Helsinki “shameful.”

“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,” Flake said in a tweet.

Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), a retiring member of the House Intelligence Committee, also took Trump to task on Russian interference, saying in a tweet that he strongly disagrees with Trump’s assertion.

“With all I have seen on House Intel Comm & additional indictments of 12 Russian officers last week, it is clear Russia’s intentions. President Trump missed opportunity to hold Putin publicly accountable,” he said.

And Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee who is retiring, defended the Mueller investigation as “law enforcement doing work our country needs it to do.”

“No, @POTUS. Mueller investigation on election manipulation by #Russia is not ‘a disaster for our country,’ ” she tweeted, saying that what has kept the two countries apart has been Trump’s “failure to condemn Russia, [and] lack of any sign that you’ll stop it from happening again.”

Among other Republicans — including prominent members of the House and Senate intelligence committees — criticism of Trump was somewhat less direct.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that his committee had “no reason to doubt” the intelligence community’s findings that Putin had ordered an influence campaign targeting the 2016 election.

“Vladimir Putin is not our friend and never has been,” he said. “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.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, defended the intelligence community, although he declined to criticize Trump when asked whether he thought the president represented the United States well during his Europe trip.

“He’s president of the United States; he is the choice of the voters,” Cornyn said.

Among the lawmakers denouncing Trump’s rejection of the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies was Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a veteran, who tweeted: “It’s time to wake up & face reality.”

“The American people deserve the truth, & to disregard the legitimacy of our intelligence officials is a disservice to the men & women who serve this country,” Kinzinger said, adding that Putin “is not our friend; he’s an enemy to our freedom.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who has also been openly critical of Trump, called the president’s assertion that both the United States and Russia are to blame for the deterioration of bilateral relations “bizarre and flat-out wrong.”

“The United States is not to blame,” Sasse said in a statement. “America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”

After President Trump cast doubt on U.S. intelligence findings on Russia's election meddling, network news anchors were flabbergasted, outraged and disgusted. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) similarly voiced reservations, saying in a tweet that “a person can be in favor of improving relations with Russia, in favor of meeting with Putin, and still think something is not right here.”

Some Republicans sent more complicated messages that weren’t as caustic as those of their colleagues.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a leading GOP voice on foreign policy who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the president, lamented Trump’s answer on Russian interference in the 2016 election as a “missed opportunity” to hold the Kremlin accountable and send a strong warning against any similar actions in the future.

“This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves,” Graham said in a tweet. He called for Congress to hold hearings probing the extent of any potential cooperation between Russia and Iran in Syria.

He also quipped about the souvenir soccer ball that Putin handed Trump during the news conference: “If it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House.”

But in a follow-up tweet, Graham sought to clarify that he has seen no evidence of collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, saying that “meddling & collusion are NOT the same thing” and that “Russia didn’t beat Clinton. Trump beat Clinton.”

Beyond Capitol Hill, denunciations of Trump’s remarks were even stronger.

Former CIA director John O. Brennan said on Twitter that Trump’s news conference “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ ”

“It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???” Brennan said.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele tweeted of Trump’s defense of Russia: “That’s how a press conference sounds when an Asset stands next to his Handler.”

And Abby Huntsman, the daughter of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, a Trump appointee, said on Twitter: “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”

Karoun Demirjian and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.