WASHINGTON ― Republicans were almost in the clear.
President Donald Trump’s lukewarm expression of support for the U.S. intelligence community on Tuesday gave relieved GOP lawmakers a way out of answering thorny questions about his refusal to call out Russia during a press conference on Monday in Helsinki alongside President Vladimir Putin.
But they were stymied just 24 hours later by an increasingly unreliable partner in the White House, who rejected an assessment by his intelligence agencies for the third time this week by saying he did not believe Russia continues to target the U.S.
“All of us are puzzled by it. Just still trying to figure out why in the world the president would say what he did in Helsinki and then say what he did again [today],” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told reporters on Wednesday.
Trump’s statement on Wednesday at the White House contradicted his Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who warned last week about the growing and present danger of Russian cyberattacks, as well as a bipartisan report released by the Senate intelligence committee.
The president’s comment set off a wave of statements from flummoxed Republican senators, most of whom did not go further than express politely worded disagreement with him.
“The Russians continue efforts to undermine Western democracies, including ours. The President is wrong and needs to heed the warnings from our Intelligence Community, including DNI Dan Coats,” tweeted Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who sits on the Senate intelligence committee.
“That’s a big disconnect,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in reaction to Trump’s comments on Wednesday. “I’m glad he showed faith in the intelligence community assessment ... [but] I’m a bit surprised by the president’s statements today.”
Graham said he would introduce legislation that would immediately slap additional sanctions on Russia that could be removed only if the intelligence agencies assess that Moscow has halted its cyber efforts against the U.S.
While there was talk of imposing more sanctions on Russia and passing a nonbinding resolution in support of the U.S. intelligence community, there was little sense on Wednesday that Republicans as a whole would be willing to take more concrete action to rebuke Trump over his roundly condemned performance at the press conference with Putin. At that event, Trump refused to condemn Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, saying he accepted the Putin’s denial, taking his word over the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies.
“I hold both countries responsible,” Trump said, later saying that “it could be other people” who interfered.
U.S. intelligence officials and congressional probes have identified no other nations as interference suspects.
Republicans dodged questions on Wednesday about Trump’s Russia fiasco, insisting they were satisfied by his tortured clarification, in which he claimed that he misspoke at the press conference, explaining that he meant to say that he saw no reason it would not be Russia that interfered.
“He made it clear he supports the conclusion of our intelligence. We do as well, and we’re on the same page,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said Wednesday, even though Trump had cast doubt on that intelligence the same day.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, said he appreciated that Trump apologized for his refusal to stand up to Putin.
“Anybody that’s willing to apologize, particularly a politician, you ought to say, ‘Praise the Lord,’” Grassley told reporters on Capitol Hill, even though Trump never offered an apology or expressed regret for his comments.
The Russians continue efforts to undermine Western democracies, including ours. The President is wrong and needs to heed the warnings from our Intelligence Community. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)
Other GOP senators simply begged off answering questions about Trump’s stance on Russia by stating that they were too busy with more pressing matters, like a pending Supreme Court nomination and an agriculture appropriations bill.
“Oh, I’m not going to comment on that,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said. “You know we’re busy trying to work on our Supreme Court justice here.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told HuffPost that Trump’s reluctance to side with the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russia is “not within my purview.”
“I’m trying to get the farm bill done. I work on things where I can make a difference,” said Roberts, who chairs the Senate agriculture committee.
But Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, appeared resigned that Congress will never be able to change Trump’s thinking on Russia.
“I mean, I guess it’s probably the best we’re going to be able to get,” Thune told reporters in response to Trump’s reversal on Russia.