Republican lawmakers who went to Russia seeking a thaw in relations received an icy reception from Democrats and Kremlin watchers for spending the Fourth of July in a country that interfered in the U.S. presidential election and continues to deny it.
“Cannot believe GOP, once the party that stood strong against Soviets & only a decade ago sought to democratize the Middle East, is now surrendering so foolishly to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Kremlin’s kleptocracy — only two years after Russia interfered in U.S. election,” tweeted Clint Watts, an information warfare specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and frequent featured expert before congressional panels examining Russian influence operations.
“Russians wooing with a shopworn song — repugnant as nails on a blackboard,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in a Twitter post in response to the delegation’s trip. “They are enemies and adversaries, attacking us.”
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) led the eight-member delegation on a multiday tour of St. Petersburg and Moscow, a trip that included meetings with Russia’s foreign minister and parliamentarians. It did not include a session that senators had been hoping for: a meeting with Putin, whom President Trump is scheduled to meet at a summit this month.
Joining Shelby were Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), John Kennedy (R-La.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.).
Members of the delegation set off on their trip late last week promising to be tough with Russian officials ahead of the president’s visit, especially on matters of election interference. But they struck a conciliatory tone once there: The point of their visit, Shelby stressed to the Duma leader, was to “strive for a better relationship” with Moscow, not “accuse Russia of this or that or so forth.”
It played well in Moscow, but not on the home front.
“Politicians celebrate Independence Day in many ways. Some march in a parade. Some attend a barbecue or watch fireworks,” tweeted Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in President George W. Bush’s administration who is running for the Senate in Minnesota as a Democrat. “But others must travel further to meet with their most important constituents.”
The senators who posted Fourth of July messages on social media while still in Moscow took some of the sharpest criticism, some of which highlighted that while they met with Kremlin-connected officials, Britain discovered that two of its citizens had been poisoned by a suspected Russian nerve agent, the same substance that injured a former Russian spy and his daughter in England in March.
Others pointed out that while the delegation was in Russia, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report finding Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election with a clear preference for helping Trump defeat former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Only one of the delegation participants, Kennedy, sits on a congressional panel that has looked into the Russia probe.
Appearing Thursday on Fox News, Daines said the Russia trip had been “productive.”
“We sent a very strong message and a direct message to the Russian government,” he said, ticking off four items he said they pressed while there: Don’t interfere in U.S. elections, respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, work with us toward peace in Syria, and uphold obligations under nuclear arms treaties.
That message did not appear to have much impact, though.
“We heard things we’d heard before, and I think our guests heard rather clearly and distinctly an answer that they already knew — we don’t interfere in American elections,” said Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States and now a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament.
On Russian state television, presenters and guests mocked the U.S. congressional delegation for appearing to put a weak foot forward, noting how the message of tough talk they promised in Washington “changed a bit” by the time they got to Moscow.
“We need to look down at them and say: You came because you needed to, not because we did,” Igor Korotchenko, a Russian military expert, said on a talk show on state-run television.
Links to the quotes were circulated on Twitter by Julia Davis of RussianMediaMonitor.com.
The congressional GOP’s prominent foreign policy voices have remained quiet about the trip, declining to comment about the visit’s significance. Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) remarked only that Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, had been urging several colleagues to visit.
In comments to reporters, Huntsman defended the delegation’s efforts as important.
“Election meddling was stressed in ways that have never been discussed before,” Huntsman said Thursday, pointing out that the congressional delegation was the largest to visit Russia in recent memory. “The fact of the matter is that we have not had the kind of conversations, across-the-table conversations — about things like election meddling and malign activity — that really do need to take place.”
“You can’t solve problems if you’re not willing to talk about them,” he added.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story should have indicated that links to comments from Russian state television were circulated on Twitter by Julia Davis of RussianMediaMonitor.com.Anton Troianovsky and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.