On Monday, President Donald Trump stood side-by-side with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said Russia probably didn’t interfere in the 2016 election.
Yes, this really happened! Here’s the quote: “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. 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 of the United States, at a summit in Finland, said he trusts Putin more than his own intelligence community. There’s just no other way to read it.
Given the absolutely explosive nature of Trump’s contention that Russians didn’t actively interfere in the 2016 election [narrator voice: They did] you might think that Republicans – who long had a tough stance toward Russia at the center of the party’s platform – would speak out strongly to condemn the President’s sentiments.
Which some did. Sort of. Sure, the John McCains, Jeff Flakes and Bob Corkers of the party blasted Trump. And Republican Rep. Will Hurd, a former CIA operative who represents a swing district in Texas, raised some eyebrows with this tweet: “I’ve seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career and I never would have thought that the US President would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands.”
But the party’s leadership largely avoided any direct criticism of Trump – issuing statement after statement making clear that they believe the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, but often without even mentioning the President of their party, who just undermined that finding with Putin standing right next to him.
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Speaker Paul Ryan’s statement was typical of the approach taken by most prominent Republicans. “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” Ryan said. Which is true, of course.
He goes on: “The President must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
But that’s about as far as it goes. There’s no “Trump needs to stop saying Russia didn’t do this.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave his support to the US intelligence community, but he did not answer a question on whether he would tell Trump that he disagreed with him.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told CNN Monday that talks have begun on the Hill to put forth a measure in support of the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections. But as I wrote earlier, that conclusion is established fact, according to pretty much anyone besides Donald Trump. “Affirming” a conclusion reached more than a year ago seems like a symbolic gesture – a wrist slap at best.
The reasoning is easy to explain. Trump is hugely popular within the Republican base. (He is among the most popular Republican presidents among Republican voters, according to national polling.) Crossing him has proven to be a bad idea – just ask Flake and Corker. So if you are a rank-and-file Republican member of Congress – or a party leader who wants to stay that way – there’s absolutely zero political benefit to going after the President on his Russia comments.
The mistake in that calculation is that this isn’t a Democrats vs. Republicans issue or even a moderate Republicans vs. conservative Republicans issue. This is a United States vs. Russia issue.
The Point: Fear is the most powerful motivator in politics. And the unwillingness of most Republicans to speak out directly against Trump’s comments on Monday is driven by a fear of the political consequences. Period.