Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger

Anger and frustration with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE are growing among Senate Republicans, who worry the unpredictable White House could undercut GOP chances of keeping the Senate majority. 

The latest flashpoint is Trump’s handling of the summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Republicans think Trump, who was given a World Cup soccer ball by Putin, committed an own goal by refusing to stand up to Putin and denounce Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Instead, Trump appeared to accept Putin’s denial.

“It’s maddeningly frustrating,” fumed one Republican senator, who requested anonymity to comment frankly on the president’s tendency to overshadow the party’s message with controversy.

“People are just like, ‘What is going on?’ ” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerThe Memo: Romney moves stir worries in Trump World Senate GOP names first female members to Judiciary panel Former US special envoy to anti-ISIS coalition joins Stanford University as lecturer MORE (R-Tenn.).

Trump tried to make amends Tuesday by walking back his remarks a day earlier putting equal stock in Putin’s denial of involvement in the election and the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that conclude Russia meddled in the election to hurt Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms Special counsel issues rare statement disputing explosive Cohen report MORE and help Trump.

Even on Tuesday, Trump equivocated.

Reading from a statement, Trump told reporters at the White House that he accepts “our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.”

But he shaded it by adding, “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

Trump only made the remarks after coming under enormous pressure from his own party.

“I would certainly like to see him put out a clarification,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO MORE (R-Maine) said hours beforehand.

Republicans expressed frustration that they had to deal with the controversy at all.

A second Republican senator, who asked to speak anonymously, said Trump appeared to be unprepared for Monday’s joint press conference with Putin.

The lawmaker said Trump or someone on his team should have anticipated a question about U.S. intelligence agencies’ finding of Russian meddling.

“I think it’s the president winging it. He gets into these jams and then tries to get out of them,” said the second GOP senator. “The story here is you need to be more prepared.”

Republicans are now expecting the story to linger for days and overshadow, at least for now, the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who unified the GOP and divided Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTSA agents protest government shutdown at Pittsburgh airport The case for Russia sanctions Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation MORE (R-Ky.) tried to put the focus back on the Supreme Court and the GOP’s successful 2017 effort to reform the tax code. But questions at his afternoon press conference all revolved around the hot-button issue of U.S.-Russia relations.

Democratic leaders gladly seized on the Helsinki summit as a reason to elect Democratic candidates in the fall.

“We will work to protect our security. We will not kowtow to Putin,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump blasts Pelosi for wanting to leave country during shutdown The Senate should host the State of the Union Dem senators debate whether to retweet Cardi B video criticizing Trump over shutdown MORE (D-N.Y.) said. “If we’re in the majority, we’ll probably be more effective and you’d see a lot stronger things protecting American security than you will with this majority, which seems so afraid of President Trump.”

Senate Republicans worry the latest Russia controversy will add to the damage caused by what they saw as another unforced error by Trump: the forced separation of immigrant families at the border. 

“There are a lot of people who are concerned,” Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSchumer recruiting top-notch candidate for McCain Senate seat The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least MORE (R-Ariz.) said of anxiety within the GOP conference over Trump’s unpredictability and loose management style.

Flake said the Trump administration appeared to be completely unprepared for the fallout it should have anticipated from its “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting illegal border crossers, which led to the child separation crisis.

“One agency doesn’t seem to know what the other is doing. We’re still seeing that with the children at the border,” said Flake, a frequent critic of Trump’s who is retiring from the Senate.

Confusion erupted last month after a senior Customs and Border Protection official declared the agency would stop referring immigrants without legal status to the Justice Department, while officials at Justice insisted they would continue to prosecute people caught crossing the border illegally.

Flake said the same problem was evident at the Helsinki summit.

“To have such complete lack of coordination between the State Department and others, and what the president is saying, is just not normal,” he said.

Another irritant is the trade war that threatens to hurt the agriculture-dependent economies of battleground states that Republicans are hoping to capture in November, such as Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota.

Making it all the more frustrating to Republicans is that they think they could have had a series of strong news cycles given the strong economy, Trump’s generally well-received summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the president’s nomination of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneLeaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Mnuchin meets with Senate GOP to shore up ranks on Russia sanctions vote MORE (S.D.) touted the accomplishments of the first 18 months of Trump’s presidency, such as tax and regulatory reform, which has coincided with strong economic growth.

But he worries that Trump’s ongoing trade war with allies and other distractions may take away from that message.

“I hope that we don’t distract from that with issues like tariffs and trade. I think that has the potential to step on a lot of the economic progress we’ve made. I hope the president and his team will come to that conclusion,” Thune said.

Republicans want to talk about the economy and the likelihood of two conservative judges being confirmed to the Supreme Court.

“You want to play offense and a lot of times you end up playing defense,” Thune said. “If you’re out there and you’re controlling the message and kind of defining the terms of the discussion, that’s obviously the ideal place to be and it isn’t always the place we end up these days.”

At the same time, there’s growing resignation within the GOP conference over their inability to manage Trump or to get him to stick to their message.

“He’s what, 71 years old? I don’t think it’s likely to change,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynTrump tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  Texas governor, top lawmakers tell Trump not to use hurricane relief funds to build border wall The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s attorney general pick passes first test MORE (Texas).