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GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki
President Trump's refusal to denounce Russia's meddling in the 2016 election sparked a backlash Monday from Republican lawmakers, including prominent voices on national security and foreign policy.
The sharpest criticism came from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who blasted Trump's joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin as "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."
The 81-year-old senator, a frequent critic of Trump but one who has often expressed confidence in the president's national security team, said he found it "painful and inexplicable" how his advisers could allow such "blunders and capitulations."
"No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant," he fumed in a statement.
Other GOP lawmakers - even some of Trump's staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, like Sens. Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) - were critical of the outcome of the Helsinki summit, where Putin denied that Russia meddled in the U.S. election.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) pushed back on Trump giving credence to those denials.
Burr said his panel "found no reason to doubt" U.S. intelligence findings that "Putin ordered an influence campaign aimed at the 2016 U.S. elections with the goal of undermining faith in our democratic process."
He said Russia had conducted a "coordinated cyberattack" on state election systems and "hacked critical infrastructure."
Putin "is not our friend," Burr said, and he urged Trump not to "tolerate hostile Russian activities against us or our allies."
Republicans on Capitol Hill have generally been leery to criticize Trump publicly or to risk getting into personal spats with him. But even GOP leaders scrambled to distance themselves from the president's remarks in Helsinki.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has at times pushed back on Trump drawing moral equivalence between U.S. and Russian policy, warned that Russia should not be trusted.
"I have said a number of times, I'll say it again: The Russians are not our friends," McConnell told reporters. "And I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community."
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) warned that Russia "remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals."
"There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world," he said. "The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."
The comments by GOP leaders echoed broad criticism from analysts and pundits at news outlets ranging from CNN and NBC to Fox News.
Bret Baier of Fox News called the press conference "surreal," while his network colleague Brit Hume called Trump's reference to the probe into Hillary Clinton's private email server to deflect questions about Russian interference a "lame response, to say the least."
U.S. Senate candidate and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney also weighed in with his own criticism.
"President Trump's decision to side with Putin over American intelligence agencies is disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles," Romney said in a tweet. "Russia remains our number one geopolitical adversary; claiming a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia not only defies reason and history, it undermines our national integrity and impairs our global credibility."
GOP lawmakers had publicly urged Trump ahead of the meeting to warn Putin not to interfere again in American elections. Instead, the president declined to criticize Russia even when asked pointedly to do so during a 45-minute joint press conference.
Trump even sided with Russia over his own intelligence agencies' conclusion about Russia's meddling in the election.
"I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Trump told reporters in Helsinki.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) pronounced himself "disappointed" and "saddened" by what he saw as Trump's soft response to Russian interference in the U.S. election and its aggressive tactics in Ukraine and the Middle East.
"The president should have been more forceful in talking about those grievances," said Corker, who's not seeking reelection this year. "Putin only understands strength and I did not think this was a good moment for our country."
GOP lawmakers mostly kept under wraps any misgivings they felt about Trump giving equal footing to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a summit in Singapore last month, which gave Kim significant concessions.
But they made their unhappiness with Trump's Russia dealings plain on Monday.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) panned Trump's attempt to spread the blame for poor U.S.-Russian relations as "bizarre and flat-out wrong."
"America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression," he warned. "When the president plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs."
Corker said that while he shares Trump's desire to have good relations with Russia, he felt the president's remarks after meeting with Putin "made us look as a nation more like a pushover and I was disappointed in that."
Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), who served as secretary of Defense under President Obama, said Trump "failed America, our interests today, in every way."
Republicans have long held an advantage over Democrats on the issue of national security, but Trump's conciliatory stance toward Putin could erode the president's credibility on the issue.
Democratic leaders pounced on Monday in hopes of tying the GOP broadly to Trump as soft on Russia.
"What, if anything, will Congress do in response to this awful trip?" Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) told reporters at a press conference. "Where are our Republican colleagues ... who know in their heart that the president is giving away the store to Vladimir Putin?"
Trump's chummy appearance with Putin also drew criticism from House Republicans like Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.).
"There is simply no comparing the actions of the United States and Vladimir Putin," he said in a statement, citing Putin's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Royce argued those aggressive actions by Moscow were to blame for what he called a "low point" in U.S.-Russian relations, not what Trump in a tweet earlier Monday called "many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity."
Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), a Republican on the House Armed Services and Intelligence panels, said she also disagreed with the president and called Russia an "adversary."
"We must continue to work with our allies to counter Russia's influence around the world," she urged.
Jordain Carney contributed.