President Donald Trump just concluded a European foreign policy swing that resembled a runaway car, and Congress is merely a passenger with seemingly no intention, at least from those setting the agenda, of taking the wheel.
Germany is “totally controlled” by Russia. The European Union is “a foe.” And when asked Monday if he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin ran an effort to interfere in the last U.S. presidential election, Trump responded: “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The final comment capped a remarkable trip by the president that saw him attack and criticize allies and give Putin the benefit of the doubt even as his own intelligence community leaders — and members of Congress across the aisle — agree Moscow meddled in the 2016 U.S. election and is poised to do so again in November’s congressional races.
When Putin spoke Monday in Helsinki — first as he confidently sat beside Trump and then as he appeared bemused when standing beside him at a joint press conference — the U.S. president was at times visibly angsty. At other times he expressed his agreement with nods and words as the Russian strongman said things U.S. lawmakers and intelligence officials have again and again called false.
Watch: What Summit? A Muted GOP Response, Then Back to Business on the Hill
“They said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said Monday of U.S. intelligence officials, including a list of ones he appointed. “I have [asked] President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia.”
“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump added. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
It was simply one of the most jaw-dropping moments of his extraordinary presidency: Trump, who is one of the subjects of the ongoing Justice Department special counsel and Senate Intelligence Committee probes of his campaign’s possible coordination with Russia during the 2016 race, put Putin’s word on the same level as that of his 16 intelligence agencies — which rarely reach unanimous conclusions but did here.
Putin stood mere feet away at an identical podium in Finland’s bright yellow presidential palace and smirked. Reporters who were in the ornate banquet room said Putin’s chief spokesman at times chuckled. The Russian president had swooped into Helsinki on his plane — and an hour late, making the “Art of the Deal” author wait.
“The Russian state has never interfered, and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including [the] election process,” he declared. When he made such statements, the unlikely American president often nodded.
The spectacle brought outrage from Democrats and — other than a few notable critical voices — mostly silence from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, did not mention the summit at all during his remarks at the beginning of Monday’s Senate session, despite the summit dominating news coverage across the globe. But even if members of Trump’s own party did sound a unified voice condemning his actions abroad, there is little they could do to alter his foreign policy.
Watch: Trump Defies Own Intel Director on Evidence of Russian Election Interference
John Brennan, who was CIA director under former President Barack Obama, tweeted moments after the joint press conference ended that the president’s “performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’”
Former directors of central intelligence are not known for dropping the “T word” often. But Brennan did on Monday, adding this in his Trump-blasting tweet: “It was nothing short of treasonous.” The sitting American president is “wholly in the pocket of Putin,” he wrote. And to “Republican Patriots,” Brennan offered what reads like a desperation-filled S.O.S. call: “Where are you???”
A few backed the president, essentially riding shotgun in the Trump foreign policy car as it veers wildly, crashing into allies as it speeds toward what increasingly looks like the chief executive’s vision of a global realignment.
“To cast doubt on any number of these things, that’s fair,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Monday of special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s Russia meddling probe and the matter of FBI agents like Peter Strzok, who demonstrated antipathy toward Trump in the 2016 campaign.
“Let’s flesh this out and see if it’s real,” Issa told CNN of the indictments Friday of a dozen Russian military officials Mueller contends were heavily involved in the election meddling. “Let’s remember that we’re more than a year into an investigation that claims there … was collusion with the Russians without a shred of evidence there was. So doubting something until it’s vetting and verified is reasonable.”
Other Republicans sent out tweets with warnings about Putin — but without naming Trump.
Diplomacy should be pursued but it’s crucial to remember Putin’s record of human rights violations. I have met with dozens of Parliamentary members in Eastern Europe warning us of Putin. We must continue monitoring the cyber-security attacks by Russia, China and other bad actors.— Rep. Mark Walker (@RepMarkWalker) July 16, 2018
But others did not mask their frustration — though none said they plan to push legislation or other actions that would restrain Trump on the world stage.
“I was disappointed,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee. “I felt like that, everyone who’s dealt with Putin knows the best way … is to deal with him through strength,” but Trump made the United States “look like a pushover.”
“I did not think this was a good moment for our country,” Corker told reporters. “I just don’t know where that comes from because there’s no question that Putin interfered in the election.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week suggested Putin might have damaging information about the U.S. businessman-turned-president. On Monday, she went a step further, saying the president’s “weakness” during the Helsinki summit “proves” the Kremlin has something on him. Another Democrat, Senate Foreign Relations member Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, called the summit the “Helsinki Humiliation” in a statement.
Schumer: Trump Should Explain Putin Meeting
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he was “appalled” by Trump’s performance, joining Pelosi in suggesting Putin has compromising information about the U.S. president.
“The president is doing grave harm to the standing of these United States while kowtowing to … Vladimir Putin,” Schumer said. “The best people to check him are not Democrats, but his fellow Republicans,” the minority leader said of the majority, which sets the agenda in each chamber.
Trump at several points during the press conference, as he often does with other world leaders, lavished praise on Putin. He has acknowledged thinking how two leaders get along will dictate how their countries get along. He referred to Putin as a “good competitor,” saying he views that as “a compliment.”
But some Republicans worry Trump is forgetting that competitors, by definition, compete.
“I think he gained a tremendous amount,” Corker said of Putin. “I would guess he’s having caviar right now.”
Not that there is an appetite among Republicans to devise a different menu.