WASHINGTON — Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called President Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki today “the most serious mistake of his presidency,” while Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) defended Trump, stressing that the intelligence community “has way too much power.”
Trump said Putin made a “very powerful” denial of Moscow’s 2016 campaign influence operation and said he has “confidence in both parties.” Asked if he held Russia accountable for anything, Trump replied, “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame.”
Trump called special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe “a disaster for our country — I think it’s kept us apart, it’s kept us separated.”
Republican reaction afterward was largely critical, though ranged from guarded to furious.
“There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world. That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said shortly after Trump’s remarks. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
Mitt Romney, now the Utah GOP Senate nominee, called Trump’s statements “disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles.”
“I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was reportedly crafting a Senate resolution expressing support for the FBI and Justice Department.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a former CIA officer, tweeted, “I’ve seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career and I never would have thought that the US President would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands.”
“To all our allies: there are still many of us in Congress that know Russia is not just an adversary to the United States but to freedom loving people everywhere,” he added.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) branded it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory… no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
“Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are—a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad,” McCain added. “American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.”
Gingrich tweeted, “President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”
Some GOP lawmakers criticized Putin without mentioning Trump.
“I have no reason to doubt the clear conclusions of the intelligence community when it comes to Moscow’s attempts to undermine our democracy,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.). “When it comes to defending our democratic institutions against foreign subversion and meddling, we are Americans—not Republicans or Democrats.”
“U.S.–Russia relations remain at a historic low for one simple reason: Vladimir Putin is a committed adversary of the United States,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said. “…Until Russian behavior changes, our policy should not change. The United States should stay on the strategic offensive against Russia by maintaining sanctions, rebuilding our military, modernizing our nuclear forces, expanding missile defenses, sending more weapons to our allies, and producing more oil and gas.”
“Strength is the one language for which Vladimir Putin needs no interpreter,” Cotton added.
Paul told CNN that he attributed criticism of the summit to “Trump derangement syndrome.”
“I think our intelligence community has way too much power,” the Kentucky senator said when asked whether he believes U.S. intelligence or Putin. “The fact that Peter Strzok was able to bring incredible bias toward the president to work every day — that should scare us.”
“I’m not discounting the allegation that the Russians hacked into Hillary Clinton’s emails; I’m not discounting that at all,” Paul added. He said he didn’t agree with Gingrich, arguing people have “lost the big picture.”
“We should be engaged with Russia, we should have conversations with Russia,” he said.
White House officials did not answer questions from the media today. Trump tweeted this afternoon, “As I said today and many times before, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.” However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”