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17 July 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:20pm

Republicans speak out against Trump’s Putin summit – but it means nothing unless they act

GOP senators could cross the aisle if they were really as outraged as they claim. But they won’t.

By Nicky Woolf

At a joint press conference following the pair’s meeting in Helsinki on Monday, US president Donald Trump chose to strongly stand by Russian premier Vladimir Putin rather than the assessment of his own intelligence agencies, which have universally concluded that the Kremlin orchestrated a sustained attack on American democracy.

But instead of upbraiding him or even asking him to stop, Trump instead lavished Putin with praise, flattering him about Russia’s recent hosting of the World Cup. Leaning in close at the beginning of the press conference, Trump was seen to whisper “thank you”. The American president spent more time critiquing the US intelligence community, as well as his former presidential rival Hillary Clinton, than he did Russia’s behaviour.

Trump didn’t just appear to choose to believe Putin’s word and that of the Kremlin over his own intelligence agencies; he outright said as much. “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,” he told reporters.

Former CIA director John Brennan tweeted that the press conference was “nothing short of treasonous”, adding that “not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin,” and indeed, the optics of the meeting could not have been worse. Just days earlier, Trump’s own Department of Justice indicted 12 Russian agents on charges of interfering with the presidential election in 2016. The total number of Russian nationals under indictment directly linked to election interference now stands at 25, including the thirteen indicted in February in connection with a notorious St Petersburg troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.

The reaction from Republicans has been covered as if it is finally a departure from the usual response of sycophancy and excuses, and true, some were particularly outspoken in their condemnation of the president. John McCain said that the Helsinki summit had been “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” he said, continuing: “the damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivety, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”

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Jeff Flake, McCain’s fellow Republican senator from Arizona, tweeted: “I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.” Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, tweeted that Trump’s pronouncement that both the US and Russia shared blame for their fractured relationship was “bizarre and flat-out wrong.”

No less a Republican figure than Trey Gowdy, the congressman responsible for the Benghazi investigation, put out a statement calling on fellow Republicans to tell the president that “it is possible to conclude Russia interfered with our election in 2016 without delegitimizing his electoral success.” Other GOP figures, including senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, also condemned the press conference. Even the usually studied spinelessness of house speaker Paul Ryan showed some cracks: “Russia is not our ally,” he told reporters in response to news of Trump’s comments.

Let’s not get too excited: all this is not as dramatic a departure from business as usual as you might think. Flake and McCain are often found among the most outspoken against the president in their party, and both are unleashed since neither is seeking reelection. But largely, the GOP has failed to exercise any kind of real control over its unpredictable president, so seduced are they by the opportunity Trump represents to push their own agendas. Ryan’s toadyism is especially egregious given that he is now retiring, his corporate tax giveaway achieved, to leave the problem he created to everyone else. McConnell, who is shepherding a Supreme Court nominee through the Senate, refused to even answer questions from reporters on the Putin meeting.

The condemnation from the Republicans is just empty words. As Bill Clinton’s solicitor-general Walter Dellinger pointed out on Tuesday, senators like Sasse, Flake, McCain, Graham and Corker could easily turn their words into actions by crossing the aisle, denying the Republicans the crucial votes they need in the Senate, in which the Republican majority is razor-thin. The fact that none have yet done this is a damning indictment of the abject lack of any moral compass in the Republican Party as a whole.

Trump’s obsequious tone toward Putin would not necessarily be so notable if it wasn’t so unusual for him personally. In every other sphere of his life and presidency there is usually no ally too close, no friend too dear, for Trump not to work actively to undermine them in public. He has gone after politicians in friendly nations from Britain to Germany and even Canada, treating them like he did his election opponents in 2016, with snide nicknames or the threat of trade tariffs or the removal of American support for NATO.

Given all of that, his absolute refusal to even air any criticism of a Russian quasi-dictator on whose watch the Kremlin perpetrated both massive interference in overseas elections, including the US presidential election – the fact of which is, after last week’s indictments, entirely beyond dispute – as well as the recent nerve agent attack on British soil is increasingly baffling to watch.

It is entirely reasonable to conclude from the president’s behaviour that the Kremlin indeed has, as has been widely speculated, some kind of embarrassing kompromat on Trump, such as the video of him engaging in watersports with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room that was so tantalisingly alluded to in the dossier compiled by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele. Though, it must also be added that, Trump being Trump, it is entirely possible that he is behaving this way simply because he delights in the outrage it causes in the media and among his political foes and even allies.

Like trying to work out which specific cigarette gave you lung cancer, the question of whether Trump is destroying the liberal world order to troll us, or because he is actually under the influence of Russian security agencies through blackmail is, terrifyingly, almost immaterial at this point. Whatever bizarre and improbable road brought us to this moment, it is clear that words are all the Republicans will offer by way of assistance, especially while legislative achievements – and a chance to change the face of the Supreme Court – remain within reach.

Don’t believe the statements from Ryan and the others. There is only one language they will understand – only one thing that could force them to change their tune – and that is defeat in the midterm elections in November.

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