President Donald Trump’s comments during a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin drew a rebuke Monday from Rep. Liz Cheney, who said she was “deeply troubled” by Trump’s defense of the Russian president.
Sen. John Barrasso, meanwhile, issued a more measured response that did not directly criticize Trump. But Wyoming’s junior senator did back the findings of the United States’ intelligence community, which has concluded Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election.
The third member of Wyoming’s congressional delegation, Sen. Mike Enzi, did not respond to questions seeking comment on Trump’s statements.
Trump sparked a wildfire of criticism — including from within his own party — by siding with Putin over the findings of his own FBI.
Standing next to Putin in a press conference in Helsinki, Trump was asked whom he believed: his intelligence agencies or Putin, who again denied any Russian tampering in the election.
“My people came to me, (Director of National Intelligence) Dan Coats, came to me and some others they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The president’s oddly ambivalent take is in contrast to a consensus from agencies including the FBI and the CIA. Earlier this week, Coats said that “warning lights were blinking red” regarding hacking of U.S. digital infrastructure and that Russia was among the “worst offenders.”
The president surprised more than a few with other comments during the press conference, such as his favor towards an “incredible offer” from Putin: the use of Russian agents to help the U.S. intelligence agencies investigate election interference.
His comments came after the indictment 12 Russians suspected of working to sabotage the campaign of then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Trump has struck a conciliatory tone toward Russia since his campaign for presidency, flouting the more aggressive stance of conservatives like Cheney in favor of an attempted friendship with Putin.
In a tweet Monday, Cheney repeated her unwavering position that Russia is a “grave threat to our national security.”
“I am deeply troubled by President Trump’s defense of Putin against the intelligence agencies of the U.S. [and] his suggestion of moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russia,” she wrote.
Cheney’s views on Russia’s political influence and the European-American alliance NATO, which checks the bleed of Russian power across eastern Europe, have differed from Trump since the beginning of his presidency.
In a January 2017 interview with the Star-Tribune, Cheney said bluntly that Trump was wrong on NATO and Russia and that she hoped his views would change.
“Vladimir Putin is not our friend,” she said at the time. “He’s clearly an adversary.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, said there may be a sound reason behind Trump’s approach.
“He handled the issue badly today in the judgment of almost everyone that I’ve heard (conservative or progressive, R or D),” he said in an email.
But aside from the president casting doubt on Russia’s attempt to sway the election, O’Hanlon said Trump’s position is not completely out of left field.
“US-Russia relations are dangerously bad and needn’t be quite this bad, given that most of the issues that divide us are of secondary strategic importance,” he said.
On the other hand, the president has struck a discordant note in a narrative that spans an otherwise divided mainstream political spectrum.
“Criticism of Putin — even disdain for him — is now endemic in both political parties,” he said.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso has a uranium gripe with Russia, and made a number of statements last year regarding the country’s path to control of Uranium One under the Obama administration. The Canadian company operates a uranium mine in Wyoming, the largest uranium state in the country.
But, the senator dodged any direct criticism of Trump’s coziness with Putin in a statement Monday.
“It’s abundantly clear that the United States cannot and should not trust Russia,” he said, noting the Trump administration and Congressional action such as sanctions and providing arms to the Ukraine.
“That said, I stand firmly behind the United States’ intelligence agencies that Russia did in fact interfere in our election,” Barrasso said. “That interference should result in further consequences for President Putin and his regime.”
Sen. Mike Enzi’s camp did not offer comment for this story by press time.
Of the Wyoming delegates, Cheney has the some of the most consistent messaging on all things Russia.
In a book she wrote with her father, former vice president and Casper native Dick Cheney, the congresswoman shared the elder Cheney’s hard-line approach to foreign politics, including a deep distrust of Putin in particular.
“Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America,” is heavily critical of the administration of former president Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what is described as a weakening of U.S. control in international affairs. Cheney’s father has been clear for decades that Russian was a threat and would continue to be one. His brand of American power globally is largely repeated in his daughter.
But when Cheney expressed her desire that Trump would change his tune on Russia, she wasn’t the only one espousing that hope.
“In the President’s first year in office, there was some reason to believe that he might temper some of the views he has held for the last three decades — such as his antipathy toward America’s alliances and free trade, and his fondness for authoritarian strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping,” said Tarun Chhabra, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy.
The president has bucked those expectations. He’s failed to cede any ground, he said.
The resultant shift in American conversation on such an old nemesis is a significant risk, compromising faith in a U.S.-led balance of power on the global stage, he said.
“The real undoing of American leadership in the world will be when our friends and allies look at the Republican and Democratic field in 2019 and 2020, and fail to see an overwhelming condemnation of Trump’s foreign policy, but instead find a critical mass embracing it,” he said.
Still, the press conference in Helsinki was one step too far for a number of leaders in the conservative party, causing an eruption of statements from lawmakers and pundits either refuting the president’s position without naming the president or refuting Trump directly. There were far fewer in the latter crowd.
Congressmen like Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., echoed Barrasso, sidestepping overt blame of the president. He instead listed the evidence against Russia and/or Putin, such as the country’s proven meddling in the U.S. election, its extensive human rights violations and invasion of the Ukraine. He also notes Putin’s “hostile actions in Syria.” Putin’s support of President Bashar Assad has led to Russian complicity in violence against the citizens of that country.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said the president’s comments blaming the U.S. in part for the strained relations with Russia — rather than the annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine invasion — was “bizarre.”
Perhaps the most painfully blunt criticism from the conservative camp came from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The former POW and longtime congressman said in a statement Monday that “no prior president has ever abased himself more directly before a tyrant.”
“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” McCain said. “But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”