GOP to White House: End summit mystery

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin may use his one-on-one meeting with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE in Helsinki to drive a wedge between NATO allies by claiming secret side deals with the United States.

Congressional Republicans are urging the White House to get ahead of the Kremlin by defining what was and wasn’t agreed to. What was said between the two leaders, they admit, remains a disconcerting mystery.

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters MORE (R-Tenn.) says he has “no idea” what Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov meant when he said Wednesday that Trump and Putin had entered into “important verbal agreements.”

Corker expressed concern about talk that the White House and Kremlin are “setting up a second meeting so they can begin implementation” of these mystery agreements.

Other Republicans pointed to the lack of transparency as problematic.

“I don’t know what happened privately, nobody does,” said Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (Ohio), adding that Trump needs to publicize whatever efforts he made to push back against Putin in their private meeting.

“It’s not enough just to raise it privately because everyone is watching, including our allies, including the people of Russia, including our intelligence agencies,” he said of any grievances Trump may have aired with Putin.

Members of Congress worry that Russia will use the Helsinki summit to undermine U.S. relations with NATO allies, especially with former East bloc and Soviet states that Putin views as within his country’s traditional sphere of influence.

Antonov said this week that Trump and Putin reached verbal agreements on two charged issues: Syria and arms control.

“The White House better get out in front of this before the Russians start characterizing this,” warned Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters MORE (R-Ariz.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and frequent Trump critic. “The Russians will use this.”

“There’s so little trust of this president, our president, among our allies,” he added.

U.S. security officials recognize that undermining NATO is one of Putin’s top foreign policy goals.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford warned Congress last year that Russia “every day is undermining the credibility of our alliance commitment to NATO and our ability to respond to NATO.”

Republican lawmakers worry that Trump may be unwittingly advancing that strategy by criticizing allies sharply at a NATO summit in Brussels and then embracing Putin in Helsinki.

Flake noted that in a recent trip to Latvia he and his colleagues witnessed a concerted Russian propaganda campaign to convince Baltic states that “NATO is weak” and “America is an unreliable ally.”

Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, said that while Russia’s remarks about the outcome of an international summit wouldn’t normally be viewed as credible, Trump’s unorthodox style creates an atmosphere of uncertainty.

“In normal circumstances I would say that statements by Russia about their inferences about particular meetings are not especially credible or important or right or destabilizing,” she said. “The problem is because our president is himself so loosey-goosey about his leadership, about these meetings, about fundamentally everything that we can begin to worry.”

But agreements entered into solely by the president don’t carry a lot of weight, she said, pointing to former President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran that largely circumvented congressional approval.

“If the president has verbal discussions with anybody and no one else is there, no one can reasonably be expected to act on them,” she said.

Even so, congressional Republicans aren’t taking any chances about how the optics of the situation may affect bedrock international security arrangements.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump hints at new executive action on immigration, wants filibuster-proof Senate majority The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump MORE (R-Ky.) took the unusual step of telling European Union allies Tuesday that Republicans in Congress value NATO and view Russia as a hostile adversary.

“We believe the European Union countries are our friends and the Russians are not,” McConnell told reporters. “We understand the Russian threat.”

Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranGoogle says it continues to allow apps to access Gmail user data McConnell: Sessions should stay as attorney general Tougher Russia sanctions face skepticism from Senate Republicans MORE (R-Kan.) warned on the Senate floor Thursday that the president and senior U.S. officials should be careful not to undermine Western alliances.

“Words matter. And what Americans say can bolster or shake confidence in the United States,” Moran said, adding that a recent trip to Russia, Norway and Finland left him “unconvinced that that Russia is prepared to change its behavior.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, said concern that fallout from the summit could weaken U.S.-NATO relations "is warranted.”

But he said “it shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.”

NATO alliances don’t depend on the president alone, he noted.

“If, for example, Trump promised somehow to abandon an ally, first of all he really couldn’t if a treaty binds us to them, and second of all, the ally would presumably raise this issue with us the minute the Russians whispered some threat in their ear,” O’Hanlon said. “At that point, Trump would have the chance to deny or correct or repudiate whatever the Russians were saying.”

Nevertheless, longtime U.S. allies have been unsettled by Trump’s foreign policy stances, even before he met with Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in May that Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement “damages trust in the international order,” and that Europe could no longer rely on the United States to provide for its security.

“It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands,” she said.

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsJudiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections      Sunday shows preview: White House officials on offensive in wake of anonymous NY Times op-ed MORE (Del.), a Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, said “we shouldn’t be just guessing on the statements of the Russian ambassador” about what was agreed to at the summit.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation MORE (N.Y.) has demanded the U.S. government translator who attended the private Trump-Putin meeting be made available to testify before Congress.

He and other Democrats also want the White House to turn over contemporaneous notes from the summit.

In a letter to Trump this week, Democrats asked what “suggestions” Putin made to the president, whether the two leaders agreed to any changes in international security agreements and whether they made any commitments about the future presence of U.S. military forces in Syria, among other questions.

They also asked if the president discussed sanctions relief for Russia, NATO military exercises in the fall, U.S. security assistance to Ukraine or made any other commitments to Putin.

Republicans say they hope to learn details about what Trump discussed and may have agreed to when Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump identifies first soldier remains from North Korea | New cyber strategy lets US go on offense | Army chief downplays talk of 'Fort Trump' Pompeo backed continued US support in Yemen war over objections from staff: report Pompeo’s staff cracks down on ‘correct use of commas’ at State Dept MORE testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

If questions remain after his appearance, Corker said he would consider asking for notes or testimony from the American translator who was present at the meeting with Putin.

But he cautioned it would be a last resort.

“It feels a little out of bounds,” Corker said. “I'm open to listening. I’d rather address it after the Pompeo hearing on Wednesday and see how transparent that ends up being.”

“I’m not going to say no, no, no,” he added. “If there’s no transparency, maybe we’ll revisit it.”

So far, Flake is the only Senate Republican to back Schumer’s call for the White House to turn over notes from the summit.

“I would hope that those notes — all interpreters take notes — would be turned over,” he said Thursday. “We need to know.