The Slatest

Congressional GOP Carefully Expresses Mild Disappointment Over Trump’s Helsinki Performance

Sen. Bob Corker.
Sen. Bob Corker. Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The array of adjectives used to describe Donald Trump’s performance in Helsinki was devastating at the Capitol on Monday night. Republican senators and members of Congress, responding to Trump’s adoring treatment of Russian President Vladimir Putin, weren’t just “troubled.” They were “dismayed,” too. The other d-word—“disappointed”—even reared its vicious head. “Perplexing”? Yes, one Republican senator went so far. “Regrettable comments,” alas, had been made.

With so many Republican allies in Congress mildly chagrinned, can the president ever recover?

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What’s sad about all of these statements of vague displeasure, which appeared to be orchestrated by one or several of the communications war rooms on the Hill, is that they’re still an improvement over the recent norm. There weren’t many attempts to spin away the remarks. Few members tried to argue that the president did a sensational job—and those who tried, tried poorly—and most didn’t even bother to fabricate a feasible theory of how Trump siding with Putin over his own intelligence community was Democrats’ fault. This incident could spark some alarmist conversations in private, but publicly, it’s another embarrassing story they expect to recede over the next couple news cycles.

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The Republicans most willing to harshly criticize the president were, as usual, those who no longer have to stand for election. Arizona Sen. John McCain lit into the president for “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” and said it was “inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats.” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who said he watched most of the press conference “in disbelief” from the airport before boarding his flight to Washington, saw “our American President… stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression.”

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Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relation Committee who last week said he wished the Helsinki summit wasn’t happening, tore into the president for as long as reporters were willing to listen.

“I think the president has difficulty conflating how people treat him personally with representing our nation’s interest,” Corker said. “I’ve seen it before. But obviously Putin did a very good job in charming” Trump. He said that “no amount of talking” to the president personally would get him to correct himself, because he only “corrects things when he sees that his base becomes upset with him.”

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Several Republicans expressed a frustration with another conflation the president makes: treating the discussions of Russian meddling in elections and alleged collusion with Russia with equal scorn. They were pleading with the president to just say it: Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

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“I don’t understand why that’s so hard for the president to say,” Corker said. “It happened. His intelligence agencies know that it happened. Our committees know that it happened. It happened. I don’t understand the difficulty in just saying that. It’s a fact. It’s a fact.”

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South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, practically begged Trump’s team to drill this into the president’s head.

“I am confident former CIA Director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, DNI Dan Coats, Ambassador Nikki Haley, FBI Director Chris Wray, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others,” Gowdy said in a statement, “will be able to communicate to the President it is possible to conclude Russia interfered with our election in 2016 without delegitimizing his electoral success.” Evidence suggests that this confidence is misplaced.

Most dismayed, discouraged, perplexed, and troubled Republicans weren’t willing to go there when asked whether one of those team members—perhaps DNI Coats, whom Trump threw under the bus during the press conference—should resign. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, though, was confused when a reporter asked, wondering why Coats should resign when he did nothing wrong.

“The people who made the comments are more responsible than the people that advise them,” he said.

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