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Republicans Scramble to Contain the Damage From Embrace of Putin

WASHINGTON — Republicans scrambled on Tuesday to mitigate the damage done by President Donald Trump’s embrace of President Vladimir Putin of Russia over his own intelligence agencies, setting a public hearing in the Senate next week, examining new sanctions on Moscow and reaffirming the fraying Western alliance.

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Republicans Scramble to Contain the Damage From Embrace of Putin
Nicholas Fandos
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times

WASHINGTON — Republicans scrambled on Tuesday to mitigate the damage done by President Donald Trump’s embrace of President Vladimir Putin of Russia over his own intelligence agencies, setting a public hearing in the Senate next week, examining new sanctions on Moscow and reaffirming the fraying Western alliance.

“I think it’s important for the Europeans to know how the Senate Republican majority feels about the structures that were painstakingly set up over decades that have worked to maintain world peace,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “So I just think it was important for our friends and allies to hear from us.”

After Republicans pleaded privately with the White House for Trump to clean up his remarks, the president walked back his comments, asserting that he had misspoken a day earlier in Helsinki. But amid a flurry of overlapping policy proposals and a drumbeat of Democratic demands for swift action, the ability of congressional Republicans to move beyond statements of condemnation to legislation and oversight that could change Trump’s course was very much in doubt.

Many Republicans found themselves wrestling with an unwelcome dilemma two years in the making: They could publicly undermine the president and risk upsetting the loyal Trump voters they need to win elections, or they could stifle their own long-held beliefs that Russia is a dangerous actor set on destabilizing the United States. At least some were dealing with a moment they helped create: Since the summer of 2016, they have abetted the president’s refusal to recognize Russia’s actions by initiating their own attacks on those who would expose the Kremlin’s efforts.

“You see people down on the floor scurrying around trying to find a way to push back against what has happened,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who summoned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a public hearing next Wednesday. “The dam has broken. What we’ve got to figure out is how do we deal with it, because the president in 15 minutes can foul up six months or a year of goodwill.”

Democrats hammered away at Trump and Republicans, demanding that congressional leaders stifle attacks from House conservatives on the special counsel’s Russia investigation and compel Trump’s senior national security advisers to testify to Congress.

Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate skirted Trump’s remarks during public appearances and tried to speak directly to Russia and America’s European allies, offering what amounted to a parallel Republican foreign policy. McConnell said the Senate Republican majority valued NATO, supported the European Union and would continue to back both in the effort to combat Russian aggression.

“There is a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this,” McConnell told reporters. “In the meantime, 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 the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said that the relevant committees should determine whether additional sanctions targeting Russia are appropriate. If so, he said, he would be “more than happy to consider” them.

“Let me try and be as clear as I can to the world and the country: We stand by our NATO allies and all those countries who are facing Russia aggression,” Ryan said.

Trump’s television appearance recanting his Helsinki remarks — he blamed confusion on his misuse of a “double negative” — did little to change the dynamics on Capitol Hill. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called them “24 hours too late and in the wrong place.” Republicans were hardly more charitable.

“This has been more than unfortunate,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “It has been a debacle. The fact that he is kind of retracing his step is important, but he sure stepped in it yesterday.” Inundated with calls from constituents and reporters throughout the day, rank-and-file Republicans seemed to be casting about for something — anything — to do.

Among the ideas was legislation written by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would create new sanctions authorities to punish Russia should it interfere in this November’s midterm elections. Corker and McConnell both singled the bill out and suggested it get consideration. Others, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, spoke in more general terms.

“We ought to look at perhaps some additional sanctions,” Cornyn said in an interview. “As opposed to just a messaging exercise, I think we ought to tighten the screws on Russia.”

Near unanimous bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate passed tough new sanctions authorities in part to punish Russia for its election interference last year. Trump only reluctantly signed them.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said he would push his own legislation that would require the State Department to consider designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. “It is clear that they have met the qualifications,” he said.

Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., were preparing a nonbinding resolution that would more or less officially endorse the intelligence community’s finding that Russia did interfere in the election. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said he would introduce a measure on Wednesday intended to move Europe from Russian to U.S. natural gas, a questionable effort given the challenge of exporting large quantities of liquefied natural gas.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the president picked up more defenders, as members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus heaped praise on Trump for meeting with Putin, accused his critics of undermining him and blamed reporters for asking questions that Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., described as “really odd” and “a little bit unsettling.”

“I call that a successful summit,” said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., “and I disregard and discount anything that involves the mainstream media press.

John O. Brennan, the former CIA director who suggested on Monday that Trump’s behavior had been treasonous, came in for particular scorn. “If there’s anything treasonous that’s gone on,” said Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, “it’s that operation right now to sow distrust in our duly elected president of the United States.”

Top Democrats in the House and the Senate were not impressed by their Republican colleagues.

“Words are not enough,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Our response to the debasement of American interest before an adversary demands a response, not just in words but in deeds.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, indicated to fellow Democrats that she did not intend to wait for Republicans and would try to force their hand on the House floor.

“House Republicans are engaged in a stunning abdication of leadership: cravenly refusing to take any action to secure our elections from foreign attack, and instead offering only weak words while bringing to the floor an appropriations package that eliminates funding for states to protect their election systems,” she wrote in a letter to Democrats.

As promised, Democrats forced a procedural vote that would have condemned Trump’s remarks in Helsinki and affirmed the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin ordered an influence campaign meant to tip the scales in 2016. The vote failed along party lines.

House Democrats plan to seek a vote to increase funding for states to enhance the security of their voting systems, Pelosi said.

In addition to calling for a hearing with Pompeo and other national security advisers, Schumer put his weight behind strengthening sanctions. He called on Trump to demand the extradition of 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted on Friday in connection with cyberattacks in the runup to the 2016 election and to release his tax returns. And he urged Republican leaders to consider legislation devised to bolster election security.

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