WASHINGTON ― Not only do congressional Republicans seem unwilling to criticize President Donald Trump for sucking up to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, but some said they don’t see any problem at all.
HuffPost asked more than two dozen Republicans about Trump’s comments on Monday at a press conference with Putin in Helsinki, and while Republicans were generally clear that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election ― an assessment that Trump now seems to sort of endorse ― criticism of him was mostly muted, with some Republicans even praising him.
Of course, there were some Republicans willing to speak against his performance. Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) called it ”the most embarrassing and weak and pathetic display,” and his Pennsylvania Republican colleague Brian Fitzpatrick said members of the moderate GOP Tuesday Group discussed offering a resolution supporting the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in our election.
“I’m an FBI agent. I love the organization. I’m going to stand by their findings,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that he found Trump’s statements on Monday “deeply, deeply troubling.”
But Fitzpatrick and Costello’s reactions were not typical among Republicans. Most GOP lawmakers hardly said anything.
Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) on two occasions Tuesday refused to answer HuffPost’s questions about Trump’s performance. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) pointed to a statement he made on Twitter the day before. And a number of Republicans, roughly 24 hours after the news conference, said they hadn’t heard Trump’s remarks. Those representatives included Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Mike Conaway (R-Texas), Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), Billy Long (R-Mo.) and David Young (R-Iowa).
When a reporter asked Conaway if he was going to watch the press conference, he said, “I don’t know.”
Some Republicans ― like Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (Ind.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.) ― stayed silent when asked if they found anything Trump said in Helsinki troubling.
But even more bizarre than the silence or muted criticism were the commendations from some Republicans.
“I thought he did a good job,” Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.) said, adding that Trump “presented himself well” and is “a good negotiator.”
In a low point for the once ideologically driven and now partisan-inspired House Freedom Caucus, some of its members at a monthly event called Conversations With Conservatives found ways to heap praise on the president.
“The good news is there was a summit,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said Tuesday.
He acknowledged Russian meddling but also urged the press to look at Trump’s actions, saying “our own countrymen” multiplied Russia’s effectiveness “by working to actively undermine this administration.”
“If there’s anything treasonous that’s gone on, it’s that active operation right now to sow distrust among our own nation in our duly elected president of the United States,” Davidson said. “It’s shameful.”
Even outside the panel discussion with conservatives, some Republicans appeared reluctant to criticize Trump for his comments on Monday.
Asked if he found anything troubling, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) said he didn’t, adding, “Have a nice day.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said he appreciated Trump’s actions but didn’t always agree with his “wording.”
Pressed whether Trump’s words were undermining his actions, Wilson said the media were misrepresenting Trump, pointing to how he just strengthened NATO, in Wilson’s determination, whereas the media insisted Trump was trying to weaken it. Wilson then suggested contacting his press secretary for any additional questions.
Most Republicans, however, found a way to more artfully split the difference, saying that, yes, they believe Russia meddled in our election but avoiding direct criticism of Trump.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) once again trod the path of Trump fealty, saying Tuesday that Russia interfered in our elections but that it didn’t materially affect the outcome. Ryan didn’t even mention Trump or the press conference over the course of multiple questions about it.
If there’s anything treasonous that’s gone on, it’s that active operation right now to sow distrust among our own nation in our duly elected president of the United States. Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio)
One narrative that Republicans seemed to embrace was that Trump and his administration acted resolutely against Russia, even if ― as Wilson put it ― the wording was occasionally off.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said Trump’s actions on Russia were “perfect.”
“He’s undone so much of the damage Obama did,” King continued. “Killing Russians in Syria, sending weapons to Ukraine, troops to Poland and the Balkans, but he’s got to clean up the language.”
Taking a page from Trump, some Republicans have increasingly turned to criticizing the press. Other Republicans expressed annoyance with the media for its drumbeat of scandals.
When a reporter asked lawmakers at the Conversations With Conservatives event if there was anything Trump said during the press conference that they found troubling, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said he was most disappointed by two things reporters asked. “The idiocy of those two questions,” he said, referring to queries about whether Trump would call out Russia for election interference and whether Putin had any compromising material on Trump ― a question that Putin answered bizarrely.
Also at the event, House Freedom Caucus member Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) criticized the press for harping on one comment about Russian meddling while not focusing on what Trump has done with regard to Russia.
“This president is great at reading people,” Norman said. “He knows that Mr. Putin is not a choirboy, he’s not an angel, he’ll do whatever he can to advance Russia. But I’m glad we got the summit, and I’m glad he’s ― I wish they would focus on the positive aspects of his actions and not take one sentence.”
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) acknowledged, “It was not a good day yesterday,” but he took issue with the talk of treason.
“You guys are taking it to such a level that I think people are not listening anymore,” he said.