As Trump Struggles With Helsinki’s Fallout, Congress Faces a New Charge: Complicity
Posted July 22, 2018 6:18 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — In the nearly two years since Russia attacked the U.S. democratic process, congressional Republicans have played conflicting roles in the drama: Some have pressed to impose sanctions on Russia and quietly pursue investigations, but they have been outshouted by Republicans who have obfuscated and undercut efforts to uncover the Kremlin’s plot.
Now, as they grapple with the political and foreign policy fallout from President Donald Trump’s summit in Helsinki with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, all Republicans, regardless of their stance so far, are facing a charge even from within their own party that goes beyond the White House: complicity.
The Republicans’ split-screen response was underscored with this weekend’s release of highly classified documents underlying the FBI’s requests to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, who the bureau believed was a Russian agent.
Trump on Sunday doubled down on his accusation that the FBI had “illegally spied upon” his campaign. While Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pushed back against the president, Trump’s allies in the House Republican conference backed him up, saying the documents contained revelations damaging to the FBI and seeking to minimize Page’s role.
“Potentially groundbreaking development here,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, wrote on Twitter. “The Carter Page FISA docs should be declassified and further unredacted (protecting only sources and methods) so Americans can know the truth.”
The back and forth over Page came after nearly a week of intense focus on Trump’s performance in Helsinki, where the president stood by Putin and contradicted his own intelligence agencies, only to reverse himself the next day. That prompted an impassioned speech about Republican complicity from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “We have indulged myths and fabrications, pretended it wasn’t so bad, and our indulgence got us the capitulation in Helsinki,” Flake said. "We in the Senate who have been elected to represent our constituents cannot be enablers of falsehoods.”
The Helsinki meeting forced the collision of two conflicting impulses that have guided Republicans on Capitol Hill through the Russia episode — and even before Trump was elected. The party’s deeply held skepticism of Putin and commitment to national security have clashed with a desire in some quarters to support the president at almost any cost, even as he cozies up to Putin.
That battle will be put to the test again this week, when senators have their first chance to grill Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the meeting and lawmakers begin to formally weigh enacting additional sanctions on Russia. In an interview Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for “new sanctions over Putin’s head.”
All this is playing out against the backdrop of midterm elections, where lawmakers will face Republican voters who are still wildly enthusiastic about Trump and have, in many cases, adopted his skepticism about the Russian interference. Attacks by Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill and Fox News against those investigating him have not only fired up the president’s base but, polls show, substantially eroded trust in the impartiality of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and the FBI itself. Some Republicans have concluded that keeping their heads down without uttering much more than general statements about Russian hostility is the only safe course.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop a president, let alone this president, from saying what he thinks or what he wants to say,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., who broke with party leaders to endorse proposed legislation protecting Mueller’s job. “I think a lot of Republicans feel it’s not worth engaging because all you do is upset a lot of Republican voters.”
Democrats view Russia’s election interference as nothing short of an existential threat to U.S. democracy, and have repeatedly pushed Republican leaders to take a tougher line toward Trump and stop the attacks on investigators.
“The road to the Helsinki disaster was paved by Republican inaction every time Trump overstepped,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader. “Their silence, their acquiescence to things they know are wrong have given Trump the extra jolt he needed.”
Even before Trump was elected, Democrats and Republicans grappled with how to respond as Russians were hacking and leaking Democratic emails, flooding social media with pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton messages, and even organizing pro-Trump rallies. In September 2016, President Barack Obama summoned congressional leaders to the Oval Office to ask them to issue a strongly-worded bipartisan letter to state and local officials raising alarms about the Russian threat.
Democrats say Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, dragged his feet and watered down the letter’s language. Harry Reid, the former Democratic leader, said McConnell “set a tone of weakness and complicity,” while Denis R. McDonough, Obama’s former chief of staff, accused McConnell of “a stunning lack of urgency.”
Aides to McConnell strongly disputed that account and said Democrats were shifting blame for the Obama administration’s failure to prevent the interference. “They made a lot of mistakes; they should not compound them now by trying to shift their failures onto others,” said Don Stewart, McConnell’s deputy chief of staff.
After the election, as the full scope of the Russian campaign was coming into focus, Republican leaders empowered their intelligence committees to begin full-scale investigations into their new president and his campaign, over Trump’s objections.
Six months later, Republicans again angered the White House by passing, nearly unanimously, legislation imposing tough new sanctions on Russia as punishment for their interference. Wary of Trump’s friendly posture toward Russia, the lawmakers limited his authority to lift them and dared him to issue a veto. Republicans say they also appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars in new grants to states for election security and issued detailed reports on hardening election security.
And a smaller group of senators have chided Trump for second-guessing his intelligence agencies and attacking law enforcement agencies.
“I’ve said it over and over again, I’ve said it to the president,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If we have problems, let’s fix them, but when you start trying to cause Americans purposefully to distrust the Department of Justice or the FBI, you’re doing tremendous damage to our nation.”
But in the House, Trump loyalists have taken the opposite tack. They have wielded the considerable oversight powers of Congress to initiate a damaging investigation of the Russia investigators, publicly sowing doubts about the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies and the work of the FBI and the Justice Department. Often drowning out the more temperate voices in their party, they have provided a forceful lift to Trump’s frontal assault on the special counsel investigation and potentially emboldened him on the world stage.
Just as the House Intelligence Committee began the chamber’s Russia investigation, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., moved immediately to undercut the inquiry with a bizarre late-night dash to the White House. There, he received classified intelligence that, he suggested, at least partly justified Trump’s unsupported claim that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
The unusual episode quickly became the subject of an ethics investigation in the House, and Nunes temporarily removed himself from his committee’s Russia inquiry. Rather than take a back seat, he began collecting documents and evidence that Republican allies of Trump have used against the Mueller investigation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has not participated in those attacks and has defended Mueller. But he has also given Nunes and his allies wide latitude, and has defended him. “He’s focusing on keeping our country safe, focused on national security,” Ryan told reporters in February, rejecting demands from Democrats that Nunes be stripped of his chairmanship. Along the way, Trump and his allies have benefited from the missteps by the FBI and the Justice Department. After the department released damning anti-Trump texts from two top FBI officials, congressional Republicans put them center stage — especially in the conservative news media — by accusing them of cooking up a politically-motivated investigation of the president.
“The public trust in this whole thing is gone,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said in December, demanding that the Mueller investigation be called off.
The attacks have not let up. There were charges that the FBI and Justice Department abused their power to spy on Page; charges by Trump and some Republicans that the FBI had planted spies inside the Trump campaign itself (“Spygate,” the president called it); repeated threats to impeach Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing the inquiry, who recently announced the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers.
And when the House Intelligence Committee closed its Russia investigation, declaring no evidence of collusion, it raised doubts about the intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Putin had wanted Trump to win, before backtracking. (In Helsinki last week, Putin confirmed that he had indeed wanted Trump to win. “Yes, I did. Yes, I did,” he told reporters.)
“What’s been allowed to happen on the House Intelligence Committee is shameful, disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful,” said Mark Salter, a longtime adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
McConnell and Ryan have repeatedly said Mueller should be allowed to finish his job.
But even now, the threats continue. On the same day that Rosenstein announced the last round of special counsel indictments, Meadows was spotted on the House floor carrying the deputy attorney general’s impeachment papers.
Meadows and others say they are not out to protect Trump but to conduct legitimate oversight. Congress has a right to know, they say, particularly if investigators have made mistakes. They insist they take no issue with examining Russia’s cybercampaign, but view the investigation into whether the Trump campaign cooperated with Russia as a partisan attack on Trump.
“I think he sees it as a push to delegitimize his presidency, and I would not necessarily disagree,” Meadows said. The Helsinki meeting, where Trump stood shoulder to shoulder with Putin and signaled he accepted the Russian president’s denials, might have been a turning point for the party. But in the days that have followed, it seems only to have reinforced the competing positions.
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain said in the wake of the summit.
But a day later, at a regular forum hosted by the Freedom Caucus, lawmakers close to Trump declared the meeting a success, pinning blame not on his performance but on the reporters who had the audacity to ask the two leaders about the attacks.
“They ask about election collusion or election meddling,” Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said. “That’s the problem.”