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Congressional GOP scrambles to react amid Trump Helsinki fallout

While frequent Trump critic Sen. Bob Corker said "the dam was breaking" on Republican Hill support for the president, other members came to his defense.
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WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans on Tuesday scrambled to react to President Donald Trump’s eye-popping remarks during a news conference a day earlier with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with most continuing to distance themselves from the president's comments casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“Vladimir Putin does not share our interests. Vladimir Putin does not share our values,” Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said at the House GOP leadership weekly news conference. “They did interfere in our elections. It’s really clear. There should be no doubt about that.”

The House earlier passed tough sanctions against Russia to hold it accountable for its meddling in the election, Ryan said. “What we intend to do is to make sure that they don’t get away with it again,” he added.

Ryan did not mention Trump in his remarks, but when asked about former CIA Director John Brennan's assessment that Trump's remarks were "treasonous," said he did not agree.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., like Ryan, looked to address the situation without mentioning the president, pointing to “indisputable evidence that [Russia] tried to impact the 2016 election.”

“We believe the European Union countries are our friends and the Russians are not,” he told reporters. “...Make no mistake about it — we understand the Russian threat. I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again in 2018."

McConnell said there is a possibility the Senate might take up legislation such as a bill proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would target the Russians with additional penalties if they tried to meddle in the 2018 election.

Other Republicans were more directly critical of the president. “You could say it’s embarrassing, but I don’t think that does it sufficient justice," said retiring Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa. "I haven’t seen anything that was so weak and so pathetic as that press conference.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a frequent Trump critic, said Tuesday that while Hill Republicans have been able to work with the president in the past, with Monday's remarks, they're nearing a tipping point.

"It feels like the dam is breaking," Corker said. "I was really glad to see people on both sides of the aisle condemning what happened yesterday strongly."

He also told reporters he planned to ask Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Russia when Pompeo testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters Tuesday that she would support placing automatic sanctions against Russia if the Director of National Intelligence ever certified that Russia had interfered with a future election.

"I am astonished that the president would choose to believe the assertions by President Putin over the unanimous conclusion of his own U.S. intelligence leaders and the bipartisan conclusions of the Senate Intelligence Committee," she added.

Other GOP members defended the president's performance.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, during their weekly press conference, stood by Trump Tuesday. While some conceded it was not his finest hour, several members attacked the press for asking questions about Russian meddling rather than about China or the nuclear arms race, which one member described as “real issues.”

“I think that anybody who watched that press conference — including the president himself — would say that was not his finest hour," said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio. "I don’t think anybody in the Freedom Caucus will say, ‘Hey, we thought that was an amazing press conference.’ But we support the fact that the president was there on the stage having the press conference and having the dialogue and he has brought us to the point where we have a chance to make this a better path.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., praised Trump for speaking with Putin. "The president bravely went out and did what Ronald Reagan did," he told Fox News. "You meet with your adversary. ... I commend him for the meeting."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, also came to Trump's defense. “I think the president did a good thing by meeting with Putin, and I think it's a mistake for people to try to turn this into a partisan escapade,” Paul told CBS. His assessment of the various areas of the Mueller probe as "totally partisan investigations" earned the president's Twitter gratitude: "Thank you, @RandPaul," he wrote.

Democrats, for their part, planned to introduce several symbolic measures Tuesday amid the backlash. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a resolution endorsing a statement by Ryan rebuking Trump’s statements in Helsinki, but his attempt to force the vote was rejected. And Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., planned to force another vote increasing funding for Election Assistance Commission grants to help states enhance their election equipment.

The White House circulated talking points on Capitol Hill that referred to the Helsinki meeting as a politically brave move that was "part of a long tradition of diplomacy and dialogue between the United States and Russia." Congressional supporters, the White House said in the memo, first reported by The Washington Post, should note that the president had spent much of his time with Putin "talking about Russian interference in American elections and other disagreements," and that Trump had expressed “great confidence” in his intelligence agencies at Monday's news conference.

Meanwhile, some Republicans tried to avoid the issue altogether: Rank-and-file members of the House GOP said that they didn’t discuss the issue inside their closed-door conference meeting Tuesday morning.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said House Republicans haven't abandoned the president, suggesting that Trump could have been tougher with Putin behind closed doors than he was in front of the cameras.

“I think the conference is comfortable with President Trump and his general policies,” said Barton, who is also retiring at the end of the term. “What we don’t know is what happened in the private meeting. I know President Trump and Vice President Pence personally and I'm sure behind closed doors Trump was pretty emphatic about some things and in public he was either silent or much softer.”