Republicans play clean up on Trump’s foreign policy


Republican lawmakers are increasingly taking on a new role in the Trump era: The president’s foreign policy clean up crew.

One month into the Trump administration, GOP lawmakers have repeatedly had to go into damage control mode as President Trump publicly flirted with Russia and raised alarm with leaked comments in controversial calls with key allies.

Republicans have at times distanced themselves from the president’s comments while scrambling to publicly reassure key allies and trying to temper Trump’s warmer tone toward Moscow.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was leading a delegation of roughly a dozen senators to Munich over the weekend, appeared to take his latest swing at Trump during a speech before a global conference on Friday.

Without mentioning the president by name, McCain said that the founders of the Munich Security Conference “would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see towards immigrants and refugees and minority groups –– especially Muslims.”

“I refuse to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries,” he said.

The comment appeared to be a veiled shot at Trump’s comments in an interview earlier this month when he pushed back after Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer.”

“You think our country is so innocent?” Trump had told O’Reilly, which sparked a round of backlash from congressional Republicans.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has been less willing than McCain to publicly tangle with Trump, used a public Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to put distance between himself and the president.

“I see no moral equivalence — none — between ourselves and the actions Russia has taken and I agree with you those comments do not reflect certainly most opinions of the United States Senate,” the GOP chairman said in widely circulated comments.

The fallout over Trump’s Fox News interview was the latest in a string of high-profile push-and-pulls with congressional Republicans over his approach to Putin.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled Congress’s position late last year, telling reporters that “the Russians are not out friends.”

McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — who have both tried to stay on message with the White House — publicly pushed back after top Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said that removing sanctions on Russia was on the table ahead of Trump’s first phone call with Putin.

Concern about Trump’s tone is already sparking legislation.

McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have teamed up with Democrats and a handful of other GOP senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), on a bill that would expand sanctions against Russia and codify Obama-era penalties that drew skepticism from top Trump officials.

They also introduced a bill to require congressional oversight before Trump can lift any sanctions, but Corker pushed back, telling reporters that he didn’t believe the administration was eyeing lifting any financial penalties.

Republican senators acknowledge that other countries are closely watching Trump’s comments, particularly on Russia.

Asked if he was hearing concerns from foreign officials over some of the president’s rhetoric, Graham responded “absolutely.”

“When the president speaks to the president of Ukraine he’s very reassuring, but then he’ll go and say something else that’s a bit unnerving,” Graham said.

Though Russia is the largest potential foreign policy wedge looming between Trump and congressional Republicans, they’ve also pushed back against his reportedly heated phone call with Australia, his position on new Israeli settlements and criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Corker acknowledged that foreign officials are routinely “wanting advice” for how to approach the Trump administration.

“There’s no question that people come in…and yeah they’re kind of shaken up by some of what’s happening,” he said during an interview with The Global Politico podcast.

Corker joined with McCain and Ryan in moving to reassure Australia after The Washington Post reported that Trump lambasted an Obama-era refugee deal during a conversation with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and cut the call short.

The GOP senators released statements noting that they had called Joe Hockey, Australia’s ambassador to the U.S., to stress that they and most Americans value the U.S.-Australian relationship, while Ryan said that Australia remains “a very central ally.”

Trump’s conversation also drew criticism from GOP senators who normally stay above the fray.

“The people of the United States do not have better friends than the people of Australia,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said from the Senate floor, recalling how his family spent six months in Australia.

Some Republicans have also bristled over Trump’s tougher stance toward Mexico, stressing the administration needs to balance border security with maintaining the alliance with one of the country’s top trading partners.

Border-state Republicans have largely dismissed Trump’s push for a physical border wall, instead floating that the administration should take a multi-pronged approach that includes fencing, surveillance and personnel.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told a New York radio station last week that for Texas “if you are talking about a physical wall, it would rate very low.”

Despite the missteps, Republicans have praised Trump’s Cabinet picks, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well-respected individuals who could give the president good advice.

And Trump has earned some early diplomatic praise, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarking on his sense of “kinship” with Trump following their meeting and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spending a weekend at Trump’s private golf course in Florida.

While GOP lawmakers note they are hopeful that Trump will evolve over time, they also acknowledge that if the administration is going to shift gears it has to start at the top.

“Eventually he’s the president; he’s the guy on the phone,” Graham said. “I guess what I would say that to the extent that politics is music, he’s off key.”

Tags Bob Corker John Cornyn John McCain Lamar Alexander Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan

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