Conservative lawmakers say President Donald Trump’s strong actions, rather than his ill-chosen words, should speak to his foreign policy strategy for Russia.
“All of the comments this president has made, the press harps on that one comment, and like my other colleagues have said, it’s what he’s done,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said Tuesday of Trump’s press conference the day before with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Norman and other House Republicans spoke during Conversations With Conservatives, a monthly meeting with reporters hosted by conservative lawmakers and The Heritage Foundation.
“But I’m glad we had the [Trump-Putin] summit … I wish they would focus on the positive aspects of his actions,” Norman said of the president’s critics.
>>> Related: Trump’s Russian Reset: He Says He Misspoke on Election Interference
In the press conference with Putin, a reporter asked Trump whether he believes U.S. intelligence officials or the Russian president on whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election.
In his answer, Trump said National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and other U.S. intelligence officials informed him that Russia meddled in the election, but the president also appeared to give credence to Putin’s denial.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said.
Trump also laid some blame on America.
“I hold both countries responsible,” Trump said. “I think that the United States has been foolish. I think that we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time, frankly, before I got to office.”
Trump’s comments elicited ire from lawmakers and many others, including John Brennan, CIA director under President Barack Obama, who labeled the president’s “press conference performance” as “treasonous.”
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
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.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) July 16, 2018
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
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., pushed back specifically on Brennan’s remarks.
“In order for something to be treasonous, it has to undermine who we are as a nation, and I’ve never seen a press conference have that effect,” Meadows told reporters Tuesday. “Normally, it takes policy and actions that go far beyond press conferences. And in fact, if we could solve the nation’s woes with press conferences, they would have been solved a long time ago.”
In remarks to reporters later Tuesday at the White House, the Associated Press reported, Trump said he accepts the findings of his intelligence officials on Russia’s actions during the election.
Trump also said that he meant to say Monday that he didn’t see why Russia “wouldn’t” be responsible for such behavior, not “would” be.
Trump says he accepts the American intelligence community's conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, and misspoke when he said the opposite in Helsinki. Follow the latest updates on US policy on Russia here: https://t.co/2LX4AwkljW
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) July 17, 2018
Lawmakers at the earlier event said Trump’s record on policy matters at home and abroad should speak for itself.
“Taxes are down, the economy is up, unemployment is at its lowest point in 20 years, [Neil] Gorsuch is on the court, they like the [Brett] Kavanaugh pick,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said, adding:
Foreign policy-wise, the trip to China last fall was good, the Korean summit was positive, the hostages have come home, there’s sanctions on Russia, the embassy is in Jerusalem, and we’re out of the Iran deal. So overall, people are pretty darn pleased. You can make whatever you want about the press conference, but that’s the sentiment I get from … the 4th [Congressional] District of Ohio, that’s what I hear from them.
Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, said the fact that the Trump-Putin summit even happened is a win for the administration.
“I think it was good for the president to be engaged in diplomacy,” Davidson said. “This is consistent with efforts under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Putin’s been in power for a long time in Russia, and frankly, he’s been an adversary of the United States during that entire time.”
The test for Putin and Russia, Davidson said, is if that regime will cooperate with Trump’s diplomatic efforts:
The question for Russia is, what does their future want to be? Is it going to be like the past? Is it going to be bankruptcy and scarcity for their countrymen? Or is it going to be the path our previous two presidents and our current president has laid out? You can have a map of engagement with the world, and I think President Trump went out of his way to try to pull Russia into the community of nations, into engagement with Europe.