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Why Trump’s summit performance rocked Capitol Hill

Why We Wrote This

Never before, in living memory, had an American president stood on foreign soil and sided with a rival foreign leader and against his own government. Even after reversing himself, President Trump will face fallout for some time.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin (l.), and majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California wait to speak to reporters following a GOP strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 17, 2018. Responding to questions about President Trump and his Helsinki news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Ryan said there should be no doubt that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

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On Day 2, post-Trump-Putin summit, President Trump sought to ease the shock and awe over his jaw-dropping disavowal of his own intelligence community, saying he misspoke: He does believe its assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Mr. Trump stated Tuesday at a meeting with members of Congress. But the aftershocks of his performance in Helsinki, Finland, will be felt for some time to come. Never before, in living memory, had an American president stood on foreign soil and sided with a rival foreign leader and against pillars of the US government – in this case, the intelligence community and the Justice Department. Top members of Congress, both Republican and Democratic, continued to push back hard Tuesday on Trump’s disavowal of his own government’s work. For Trump to say that, standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, was mind-boggling. “Russia is a menacing government that does not share our interests, and it does not share our values,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday, suggesting openness to new sanctions. Still, it’s far from certain that Trump’s performance with Putin is a turning point, at least domestically. GOP voters’ views of Russia have improved dramatically under Trump, and his supporters may well stick with him. What is clear, though, is that Trump’s actions have damaged the US’s ability to work with Russia on areas of common ground. “The zero-sum politics around Trump and Russia have now metastasized into a full-blown political war in Washington,” says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute.

On Day Two, post-Helsinki summit, President Trump sought to ease the shock and awe over his jaw-dropping disavowal of his own intelligence services, saying he misspoke: He does believe their assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Mr. Trump stated Tuesday at a meeting with members of Congress.

But the aftershocks of his performance in Helsinki will surely be felt for some time to come.

Never before, in living memory, had an American president stood on foreign soil and sided with a rival foreign leader and against pillars of American government – in this case, the US intelligence community, Justice Department, and FBI.

Historically, US presidents traveling abroad put domestic politics aside and represent all the American people, not just their supporters. But in Helsinki, Trump seemed caught in the vise of his own apparent belief that evidence of Russian meddling in 2016 created the appearance that he did not legitimately win the election. And so his impulse, a feeling widely shared by his base, has been to push back on all aspects of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation – the Russian meddling, the possibility that Trump associates colluded with Russia, and obstruction of justice.

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said Tuesday afternoon before a meeting at the White House with GOP members of Congress. But the admission came with caveats: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all.”

The White House also put out a press release with this title: “President Donald J. Trump is protecting our elections and standing up to Russia’s malign activities."

Tuesday morning, top members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, had continued to push back hard on Trump’s disavowal in Helsinki of his intelligence services’ assessment. Trump had made such statements before – questioning the conclusion of Russian meddling – but to do so standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, at a post-summit press conference, was almost incomprehensible.

“They did interfere in our elections – it’s really, clear,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Tuesday morning, reinforcing his message Monday of outrage and suggesting openness to new sanctions. “Russia is a menacing government that does not share our interests, and it does not share our values.”

Speaker Ryan’s comments were mild compared with those of Democrats and “never-Trumper” Republicans, who used words like “shameful” and “disgraceful” to describe Trump’s statements – or, in the case of former CIA chief John Brennan, “treasonous.” Few Republican members of Congress came to Trump’s defense, an exception being Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson also defended Trump, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – usually a Trump stalwart – said that he had committed “the worst mistake of his presidency.”

Support for Russia among Republicans nearly doubles

Where this episode leaves the president politically remains to be seen, particularly as it has shined a light on Trump’s habit of giving Russia the benefit of the doubt. On July 13, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned of Russian cyber-intrusions – likening the situation to the period before 9/11. Trump’s posture has raised speculation that the Russians have compromising information on him, an issue that came up at the Helsinki press conference.

But it’s far from certain that Trump’s performance with Mr. Putin is a turning point, at least domestically. Republican voters’ views of Russia have improved dramatically under Trump, and as with many of the president’s norm-busting actions, his supporters may well go along with the latest twist and turns, in spite of the initial shock expressed by many GOP elites.

“Let’s see how the country responds over the next several weeks,” in the run-up to the November midterms, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “Is there a movement in polls among Republicans in the Midwest, who might be having doubts about trade and Putin?”

While 40 percent of Republicans say they view Russia as an ally, up from 22 percent four years ago, according to Gallup, they’re still a minority within their own party. And given that Trump’s warmth toward Russia and Putin represents a recent shift from the longstanding Republican view of suspicion and outright hostility toward Russia, and before that the communist Soviet Union, this spike in Republicans’ positive view may not last.

“While polling has shown a broad change in Republicans’ assessment of Russia and Putin, that’s not bone deep,” says Professor Jillson. “Many of these are lifelong Republicans who grew up and spent the bulk of their life disdaining Russia and now see Putin as the great enemy.”

Many Republicans in Congress still hew to that view of the Russians.

"I don’t think we can let them get away with what they’re doing, and I don’t think the president’s remarks have been very effective either,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a brief Monitor interview before Trump reversed himself on Russian meddling. 

Democrats unmollified

Like Speaker Ryan, Senator Hatch also suggested the possibility of new sanctions legislation against Russia, but added, “I’m not sure of a probability.”

Democrats, for their part, were not willing to forgive and forget after Trump’s attempt at damage control.

In a statement, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York called Trump’s statement “24 hours too late, and in the wrong place.”

“If the president can’t say directly to President Putin that he is wrong and we are right and our intelligence agencies are right, it’s ineffective, and worse, another sign of weakness,” Senator Schumer said.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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