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Will Republicans Insulate America From Trump and Putin?

GOP leaders in Congress have been at odds over how to respond to the president’s disastrous performance in Helsinki

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., talks to reporters after making a speech on the Senate floor calling for a resolution to back the U.S. intelligence community findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and calling for other responses to the meddling, on Capitol Hill in WashingtonTrump Congress Russia, Washington, USA - 19 Jul 2018

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., talks to reporters after making a speech on the Senate floor calling for a resolution to back the U.S. intelligence community findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The world may never know the full extent of President Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. Their summit in Helsinki led many to believe the president is in some way compromised by his Russian counterpart, and Trump has repeatedly stumbled while trying to explain his submissive performance during Monday’s press conference, walking back his comments on Tuesday, then walking-back the walk-back Wednesday morning. His latest position is that he does indeed believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election, for which he holds Putin personally responsible, albeit indirectly. “Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country,” Trump said Wednesday when asked by CBS’ Jeff Glor whether he faults the Russian president. “Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So, certainly as the leader of a country, you would have to hold him responsible, yes.”

This isn’t very convincing given Trump’s persistent waffling. Regardless of how he has qualified his performance, the press conference in Helsinki made it abundantly clear that safeguards need to be put in place to protect America from Trump and Putin. The only people who can do it are Republican lawmakers, who control both the Senate and the House of Representatives (at least for the remainder of the year). Though several key GOP leaders condemned Trump after the press conference, tweets and strongly worded statements are meaningless without legislative action. What exactly such action entails has been a divisive issue all week.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Bob Corker (R-TN) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have all at least said they’re willing to consider legislation, with Graham proposing sanctions that would be held in place until Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats can verify Russia is no longer attempting to meddle in America’s electoral process. On Friday, Coats said “the warning lights are blinking red” and that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), on the other hand, has attributed criticism of Trump’s performance at the summit to partisanship. “Trump Derangement Syndrome has officially come to the Senate,” Paul said Thursday. “Hatred for the president is so intense that partisans would rather risk war than give diplomacy a chance.”

On Wednesday, Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Jeff Coons (D-DE) introduced a resolution that would solidify the legislature’s stance toward the Mueller investigation and Russian election interference, while calling for hearings on what exactly took place at the summit in Helsinki. As of Thursday, not even White House officials seem to know what was discussed in the private meeting between Trump and Putin.

Flake and Coons brought the resolution to the Senate floor Thursday, looking to pass it with unanimous consent. While defending the need to pass the resolution, Flake cited the Constitutional definition of treason, noting that Trump “let down the free world by giving aid and comfort to an enemy of democracy.” He described the president’s performance in Helsinki as an “Orwellian moment.”

The resolution was ultimately blocked, however, by Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who decried it as “symbolic.” Cornyn also said that he felt “some confidence” that Trump “did indeed misspeak” when he said during the press conference that he didn’t see any reason why Russia would have wanted to interfere in the election. A day later, Trump claimed he meant to say the word “wouldn’t.” Other GOP senators have expressed similarly tepid acceptance of the president’s excuse. “I take him at his word if he said he misspoke, absolutely,” said Rob Portman (R-OH). “I’m just glad he clarified it,” said Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Flake called Cornyn’s decision regrettable. “This simply says in a symbolic way, that we in the Senate don’t buy Putin’s denial of election interference,” he said of the resolution. “We here in the Senate should say we don’t believe it. Yes, it’s symbolic and symbolism is important. Our agencies need to know we stand behind them.”

Also on Thursday, the Senate voted on a resolution introduced by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) that would call for the White House to refuse to turn over U.S. diplomats or officers to Russia. On Wednesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the administration would consider allowing Russia to interrogate former American diplomat Michael McFaul in exchange for help with the Mueller investigation. Prior to the Senate’s vote on Thursday, Sanders released a statement regarding the offer. “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” the statement read. “Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.” Just days earlier, Trump had called the proposal “an incredible offer.”

Though the Flake/Coons resolution required unanimous approval, Schumer’s resolution, the vote for which was organized by McConnell, only needed a majority to pass. It was approved unanimously anyway.

Though the Senate appears to at least be trying to hold Russia accountable, House Republicans aren’t faring so well. On Thursday, House Intelligence Committee Republicans unanimously blocked an effort led by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA) to subpoena the translator present during Trump’s private meeting with Putin. No one other than Trump, Putin and their translators was present in the meeting, and Trump has been exceedingly vague about what was discussed.

Though forcing the translator present in a closed-door meeting to testify may have stood little chance of garnering Republican support, one would have thought they might have been able to stomach an amendment drafted by Rep. Mike Quiqley (D-IL) that would have added election security grants to a spending bill scheduled for vote on Thursday. This wasn’t the case.

Though Republicans argued Wednesday that the grants were already fully funded, Democrats stressed the importance of election security in light of the still-very-real threat of Russian interference in the 2018 midterms and beyond. “The American people should be very worried about the commitment of this president and his Republican allies in Congress to securing our elections,” Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI), said Wednesday. “This is a party that has worked with this administration to undermine and minimize the investigation surrounding Russian interference in our presidential election.”

With the bill up for a vote on Thursday, House Democrats made a last-ditch effort to convince Republicans to support the Quigley amendment. After being introduced by Quigley, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), delivered a fiery speech stressing the significance of the Russian threat. “We have sworn an oath to defend our Constitution and our liberty against all enemies foreign and domestic!” he said. “You have the opportunity to do that today! Do so! Vote yes on this amendment for your country!”

They voted no.

This post has been updated.

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