The question has hung over the Republican Party for nearly two years: What will it take for GOP leaders to call bullshit on President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russia’s attacks on American democracy?
The answer became slightly clearer Monday in the hours following Trump’s joint press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. After meeting in private with Putin – without aides or advisers – for two hours, Trump faced the U.S. and international media and gave a truly stunning performance.
Not only did he refuse to condemn Putin for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, he actually took the authoritarian leader’s side. “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,” Trump said. He added: “My people came to me … they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The press conference was also notable in that it put to rest, once and for all, the question of whether Putin actively wanted Trump to win the presidency. Asked point-blank if he did – and if he directed any officials to help ensure he would – the head of the Russian Federation answered in the affirmative. “Yes, I did,” Putin said. “Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
With those words, Putin snatched one of the few remaining instruments House Republicans had used to introduce a modicum of uncertainty into the narrative that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have agreed upon: Russia was behind the hacking of the DNC, the Clinton campaign, state and local election boards around the country, and those hacks were intended to sway the election. After an ugly, partisan battle between members of the House committee investigating the attack, the committee’s Republican majority issued a report that stopped short of that conclusion.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who has an uncanny knack for ducking tough questions about Trump’s performance and fitness as president, issued an uncharacteristically stiff statement (at least by his standards). “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” Ryan said. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally…. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
Reached for comment, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) of the House Intelligence Committee did not mince words. “The president is acting as if the Russians have something on him. There’s just no other way to describe it,” Quigley tells Rolling Stone. “It’s bizarro – I don’t know how to explain it. I can’t get into what I suspect based on a year and half [working on the House Russia] investigation. What I can tell you is: One could easily deduce from all this that the Russians have something on this president.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), a Republican who also sits on the House Intelligence Committee, but who has shown a bit more of an inclination than some of his GOP colleagues to criticize Trump, was equally mystified by the president’s comments in Helsinki. “Russia is not our friend,” he said. “Russia attempted to undermine the fundamentals of our democracy, impugn the reliability of the 2016 election and sow the seeds of discord among Americans.” Gowdy said he was “confident” – unconvincingly – that senior officials in the Trump administration including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, FBI Director Chris Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions “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.”
Former Speaker of the House and longtime Trump supporter Newt Gingrich tweeted that “President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected – immediately.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had no immediate comment on Trump’s remarks, but a handful of GOP senators weighed in with their own angry responses. None were more fiery than that of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), whose office released a scorching five-paragraph statement that called the Helsinki summit “a tragic mistake” and the press conference “a pathetic rout.” McCain stopped just short of accusing Trump of treason. “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” he said. “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.”
McCain, who is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, continued by saying that no president before Trump had ever “abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” He went on, “Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are – a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad. American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.”
Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, tells Rolling Stone he would be watching closely to see how Republicans and members of the Trump administration – including Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence – would respond to Trump’s declaration. (Huntsman has yet to comment; Coats, for his part, put out a mild statement reiterating the intelligence community’s findings. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” he said.)
Putin’s admission, was “consistent with what the intelligence community found, which was that there was a preference for Trump and a clear desire to defeat Hillary Clinton,” says Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “His words match what we saw in the attack.”
Today, Swalwell and Quigley were among many Democratic voices calling on their Republican colleagues to support legislation that would protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and fund security measures to fortify election systems ahead of November’s 2018 midterm elections.
“It was embarrassing that there were American flags on that stage, because the actions [of Trump] did not reflect what you would expect from an American president,” says Swalwell. “The primary role of any president is to protect and defend the United States and, given the opportunity, to confront and warn Putin, we sided with Putin.”