Congressional Republicans have tried mightily to position themselves as close allies of President Donald Trump, and Monday they faced their greatest test of loyalty yet.
And while some key GOP players made it clear they had had enough of Trump’s refusal to side with the U.S. intelligence community over Russian denials about meddling in the 2016 presidential election, it was unclear and unlikely the latest furor would diminish GOP support for major Trump initiatives.
Following Trump’s performance at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the leaders’ one-on-one meeting in Helsinki, some Republicans were vocal and unequivocal in their outrage following .
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who has has frequently and proudly insisted he’s not only Trump’s ally but friend, too, was quick to forcefully and methodically issue a scathing indictment.
“Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections,” tweeted Graham, a military veteran and senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves,” he said.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and has been reluctant to wade into the Russian meddling debate, suggested the president needed to acknowledge the realities of Russian aggression.
“They have used social media to sow chaos and discord in our society. They have beaten and harassed U.S. diplomats and violated anti-proliferation treaties. Any statement by Vladimir Putin contrary to these facts is a lie and should be recognized as one by the President,” Burr said.
In the House, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform committee and last week accused FBI agent Peter Strzok of being biased against Trump, intimated the president needed to be educated by his cabinet officials.
Gowdy said he was “confident” Trump’s appointees, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “will be able to communicate to the president it is possible to conclude Russia interfered with our election in 2016 without delegitimizing his electoral success.”
But there were few signs congressional Republicans would dramatically turn against Trump’s policies. Many GOP leaders were measured in their responses and avoided criticizing Trump directly.
“The Russians are not our friends, I’ve said that repeatedly and I’ll say it again today,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on his way into the Senate chamber on Monday afternoon, adding that he has “complete confidence in our intelligence community.”
McConnell, R-Kentucky, kept walking and ignored reporters’ questions about whether he was disappointed that Trump had not publicly sided with the U.S. intelligence community.
Making remarks on the Senate floor to open the congressional work week, McConnell made no further mention of the Trump-Putin summit, instead touting Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he had not seen the leaders’ press conference, but that Trump had a “delicate task.
“Engagement with even someone as evil as Putin is necessary,” said Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican. “The president was trying to maintain some rapport with him. But clearly I disagree with Mr. Putin.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, had a different take. “It’s a good first step to have conversations,” he said of the summit.
The tone of the reaction was the latest example of congressional Republicans struggling to assert themselves and not risk alienating their president — an increasingly difficult balancing act.
Graham has been walking this tightrope for months. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he repeatedly bashed then-candidate Trump as an embarrassment to the party.
Since Trump’s inauguration, he has made sure he’s been seen as supportive at a time when 80 percent of South Carolina Republican voters support the president, according to an April poll by Winthrop University.
He even preempted Trump’s meeting with Putin by releasing a statement on Friday calling Trump “a strong leader who realizes that America’s national security interest must come first and foremost.”
Graham’s press office shopped the statement to reporters under the subject heading, “Trump won’t repeat Obama’s mistakes.”
But by Monday, Graham suggested Trump had let him down in not condemning Russia’s support for Iran’s military presence in Syria and Putin’s alliance with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
“It is beyond absurd to believe that Russia will ‘police Iran’ or drive them out of Syria,” he tweeted, adding that now it was “imperative that Congress hold hearings on the extent and scope of any cooperation with Russia in Syria regarding Iran’s presence.”
It was a “bad day” for the United States, Graham said, “that “can (and) must be fixed.”