Trump, speaking in Helsinki after his first summit with Putin, said he saw no reason to believe his own country’s intelligence agencies over the Kremlin leader’s assurances that Russia did not interfere in the US election.
A wave of condemnation immediately followed, with lawmakers calling Trump “weak” and “cowardly” while Senator John McCain said the summit was “a tragic mistake”.
The war hero and former Republican presidential nominee, a frequent critic of the president, said Trump “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.”
Today’s press conference in #Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.
My full statement on the #HelsinkiSummit: https://t.co/lApjctZyZl
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) July 16, 2018
Trump will meet with members of Congress on Tuesday, the White House said without giving further details.
On Friday, a US special counsel unveiled indictments of 12 Russian spies on charges of hacking Democratic Party computers as part of election meddling, the second set of charges against Russians in a probe that Trump calls a political witch hunt.
After the Helsinki summit, at least two senators – Republican Pat Toomey and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer – raised the possibility of imposing new punishment on Russia.
Toomey said in a statement that unless Putin helps the United States prosecute Russians accused in the hacking, “the United States should impose tough new sanctions on Russia.”
It was unclear if Senate or House of Representatives leaders would back such a move or how new sanctions might be crafted.
Relations between Washington and Moscow have been at their lowest point in the post-Cold War era. Trump touted the summit as a chance to improve ties. Even before the allegations of Russian meddling, tensions were high over Moscow’s concerns about NATO expansion, Russian annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and Russia’s military backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in its seven-year civil war.
Trump’s eagerness to improve US relations with Russia had been met with skepticism in Congress, where lawmakers nearly unanimously approved tough sanctions targeting Moscow in 2017.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, weighed in after the summit.
“Flattering dictators will not advance American interests. It makes us less safe,” Biden said of Trump’s remarks.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a Republican and a Trump appointee, responded to Trump’s remarks and stood by the US agencies.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Coats said.
On his way home, Trump insisted in a post on Twitter that he has “GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.”
Not all Republicans in Congress were angry with Trump’s conduct in Helsinki. “Absolutely I’m with the president on this; the (U.S.) intelligence community was full of biased people,” Republican Senator Rand Paul told CNN.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, the top Republican in Congress, said Russia undoubtedly interfered in the 2016 election.
“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,” said Ryan in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, told reporters: “I’ve said a number of times and I’ll say it again. The Russians are not our friends and I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community.”
Senate and House Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi went so far as to hint that Trump’s conduct might stem from Putin possibly having embarrassing information about him.
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