The Memo: Russian cloud casts new shadow over GOP agenda

President Trump is under a new Russian cloud, frustrating Republicans who see their fraught efforts to push a legislative agenda being overshadowed once again.

The New York Times on Sunday revealed that the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. last year met a Kremlin-linked lawyer who suggested she had damaging information on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort also attended the meeting.

The Times followed up with another revelation on Monday evening, reporting that the younger Trump had been told in advance of this June 2016 meeting that the purportedly damaging information was part of an attempt by the Russian government to assist his father’s presidential bid.

{mosads}The news comes at a critical juncture for Republican leaders, who have struggled to move the party’s agenda on Capitol Hill. The Senate is hoping to pass an ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill this month, but getting such a measure through the upper chamber in that timeframe looks more and more unlikely. 

Reverberations are also being felt from Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 conference in Hamburg, Germany, last week. 

Prominent Republicans joined a chorus of criticism over Trump’s initial suggestion that the U.S. and Russia might create a joint initiative on cybersecurity.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday called that proposal “pretty close” to the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on CBS’s “Face the Nation” sarcastically suggested that Putin could indeed be helpful on the topic “since he is doing the hacking.”

On Sunday evening, Trump made a relatively rare public backtrack, tweeting that “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”

The furor has Republicans lamenting new distractions from the business of passing legislation. The GOP-controlled Congress has not passed any major bills, and its efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — a Republican pledge to voters since ObamaCare’s inception — are shrouded in uncertainty.

Judd Gregg, a former GOP senator from New Hampshire who is also a columnist with The Hill, described the Russia controversies as “extremely unhelpful.” 

Gregg added that “they undermine the message, they distract, they take away from the time that administration officials, including the president and the chief of staff, can be engaged in policy. And they affect the confidence of congressional Republicans in the White House’s ability to stay focused.”

The realization that the Russian matter has been given a new lease of life is deepening Republican gloom. 

Donald Trump Jr. had at first stated that his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was primarily about adoption laws. Only later did he acknowledge that the attorney had “stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton.”

The question of why the president’s son did not admit that at the outset remains unanswered. But he defended himself on Twitter on Monday, writing, “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent… went nowhere but had to listen.” 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is looking into allegations of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, told reporters on Monday that he “absolutely” wanted the president’s son to speak with the panel. 

“Obviously this past weekend’s revelations move us forward, and we expect much more to come,” Warner said. He added that although the president “continues to say there is no ‘there’ there … virtually every week or two there’s more stories of undisclosed meetings with Russian officials.”

The White House has sought to push back against suggestions that there was anything untoward about the meeting. Principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during an off-camera media briefing Monday that “Don Jr. did not collude with anybody to influence the election … Don Jr. took a very short meeting from which there was absolutely no follow-up.” 

But in the broader Republican world, there is frustration that the president and, by extension, the GOP in Congress are having to try to bat away Russian controversy once again. 

That irritation is made all the more acute because some believe Trump acquitted himself decently on his foreign trip — but worry that any momentum from that has been relinquished.

Republicans in Congress “are going to be looking for a healthcare bill, and this has the capacity to derail that,” said David Woodard, a Clemson University professor who is also a GOP strategist. “John Kennedy said that domestic policy can only defeat us, but foreign policy can kill us. It takes priority over everything else because the nation is deemed to be at risk in some way.”

Even setting aside the Don Jr. meeting, Republicans are perplexed as to why the president himself would score what they see as a political own goal with the original idea of a joint initiative on cybersecurity.

Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who worked for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the 2016 GOP primary, described the idea as “insane.”

Tyler laughed wryly when asked about what effect the Russian controversies might have on the GOP legislative agenda.

“We don’t have to wonder about it,” he said. He noted that the president had historically low approval numbers, something that he said translated to a lack of political capital.

“When you have no political capital and no public support, we don’t have to wonder about what happens,” Tyler said. “If the engines fall off just as the plane takes off, we don’t have to speculate about whether it is going to crash.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John McCain Lindsey Graham Mark Warner Ted Cruz
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