Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger

Anger and frustration with President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate 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 CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  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 ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote 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 CollinsSchumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate Collins says negotiators are 'just about finished' with infrastructure bill 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 McConnellSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Manchin 'can't imagine' supporting change to filibuster for voting rights Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 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 SchumerChuck SchumerManchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session 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 FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots 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 ThuneBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks 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 CornynBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on MORE (Texas).