Senate Republicans are attempting to dissuade President Trump from holding another summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin anytime soon.
Many GOP senators regard Trump’s meeting with the Russian leader in Helsinki earlier this week as a political disaster. Congressional Republicans have since come under intense pressure to renounce the president’s embrace of Putin on the world stage, particularly his apparent acceptance of Putin’s denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
When asked about the possibility of a second summit, Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) hung his head and quipped, “maybe in a year or two.”
The body language of other GOP senators was equally telling.
“I don’t have anything to say about that today,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), another member of the GOP leadership, lowering his eyes and shaking his head.
The White House confirmed Thursday that Trump has asked national security adviser John Bolton to invite Putin to Washington for another rounds of talks in the fall.
“In Helsinki, @POTUS agreed to ongoing working level dialogue between the two security council staffs,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted. “President Trump asked @Ambjohnbolton to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway.”
Republican senators made clear that they think rushing into another Helsinki is not a good idea.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) called for a timeout on summits.
“At this point I think we need to clarify where we are,” Capito said, noting there’s still confusion about Trump’s comments and what he agreed to when he met with Putin one-on-one in the Finnish capital.
“It’s a little cloudy, so if he’s asking my advice I would say let’s let the dust settle here,” she added. “Let’s work on some of the issues they talked about.”
Republicans broadly expressed disappointment with the outcome of the Helsinki summit, where Trump gave equal weight to Putin’s election meddling denials and the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
A new poll found similar dismay among constituents.
Only 32 percent of respondents approved of the way Trump handled the summit, according to a CBS News poll released Thursday. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they felt less confident about Trump standing up for U.S. interests after watching him on stage next to Putin.
“That was not a good moment for our country,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), repeating what has become something of a mantra for him this week.
Trump tried multiple times to walk back his statements from the joint press conference with Putin, somberly declaring his acceptance of “our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.”
But Trump veered off script during his initial walk-back, saying the election interference “could be other people.”
“A lot of people out there,” he said, undercutting U.S. intelligence findings that Russia was the culprit.
Trump drew rebukes from Republican lawmakers later in the week when he said Russia doesn’t pose a threat to the United States, contradicting his own director of national intelligence.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said any claim that Russia doesn’t pose a threat is “just not true.”
“It’s the assessment of everyone I’ve spoken to in the field,” Rubio said.
The White House later said Trump’s threat-related remarks were misunderstood.
There are lingering concerns among GOP lawmakers over what Trump agreed to during the one-on-one meeting with Putin, when translators were the only other people in the room.
Russian ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said Wednesday that Trump and Putin reached “important verbal agreements” during the summit, remarks that caught U.S. officials off guard.
Antonov said the leaders reached agreements on issues related to Syria and arms control.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of Trump’s policies, on Thursday backed a demand by Democrats that the White House turn over the contemporaneous notes of the interpreter who translated the private meeting with Putin.
“We’ve got to find out what the Russian ambassador was referring to yesterday when he said that important agreements were reached,” Flake said. “We don’t know. We have no idea. We’ve got to find that out.”
Flake and other congressional Republicans worry that Russia may be trying to claim secret deals to undermine NATO alliances.
Republican senators say Trump needs to be better prepared going into the next summit and deal with Putin more directly about U.S. grievances over Russian policies and actions.
“It’s a good thing to be meeting and to talk, but we’ve got to be sure the message is consistent, strong,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “And unless you’re straightforward with what the problems are, you’re never going to develop a better relationship.”
Senate Republicans hope to get more information about the possibility of a second-round summit with Putin when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.
“I can assure you that next Wednesday, that when Secretary Pompeo comes in, there’s going to be a lot of interest,” Corker said.
When asked about the possibility of another summit in a few months, Corker responded, “Ask me after Wednesday.”