Top Wisconsin Republicans panned President Donald Trump’s remarks alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin that cast doubt on U.S. intelligence findings that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, but they largely refrained from directly criticizing the president.
Trump’s remarkable appearance with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, received rare bipartisan pushback — though Republicans and Democrats differed in the extent to which they were willing to focus their criticism on the U.S. president.
In addition to accepting Putin’s denial that Russia didn’t attempt to influence the election over the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump also suggested the U.S. is partly to blame for the poor state of relations with Russia.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville said in a statement that “there is no question that Russia interfered in our election.”
“The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” Ryan said. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia.”
The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh, urged Trump in a statement to “demand that the Putin regime dramatically improve its behavior.”
“Our deteriorating relationship with Russia has but one cause: Russia’s bad behavior,” Johnson said in the statement, which likewise did not address Trump’s statements.
Democrats had no such compunctions. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Madison said in a Twitter post that Trump “needs to stop treating Putin like a friend and start holding him accountable.”
“Instead of standing with Putin, the President should stand up for America and our democracy,” Baldwin said.
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, said “it’s almost impossible to fathom this coming from a sitting U.S. president, regardless of party.”
“We’re picking fights with Germany and Canada and yet we’re justifying the regimes of (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin. It just doesn’t make any sense,” Pocan said.
Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, said it was “appalling that the President decided to side with Putin over the chief intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the United States.”
A few Republicans defended Trump. Delafield businessman Kevin Nicholson, who’s vying to unseat Baldwin in the November election, issued a statement decrying Russian leaders as “ruthless, uncooperative and untrustworthy.” But Nicholson said U.S. presidents “have sometimes had to deal with them in order to achieve larger American policy objectives.”
“The President clearly believes an ongoing and direct dialogue serves our national security objectives and I support him,” Nicholson said.
Likewise, while stressing that “Russia is no friend to the U.S.,” the other top Republican Senate hopeful, Leah Vukmir, said: “President Trump is a great negotiator and I trust him to engage with whomever is necessary to secure a safe and prosperous future for our country. I have no doubt that he did that today.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Green Bay Republican and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, also avoided mentioning Trump in a statement but said “Putin is not our friend.”
“He brought war to Ukraine, used chemical weapons on UK soil, and as we know from our intel community, tampered with our democracy. Russia, not the U.S., is responsible for current tensions and we must continue pushing back,” Gallagher said.
Other members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation did not respond Monday to requests for comment on Trump’s remarks.
The remarks came in an unusual joint press conference Monday in Helsinki with Putin — whose intelligence agencies directed the attack on the 2016 U.S. elections, according to the U.S. intelligence community and recent indictments brought by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller III. GOP-led congressional committees have reached the same conclusion.
Trump called the Mueller probe into that attack “a disaster for our country.”
Putin has denied a Russian hand in the attacks, and Trump signaled today that he may believe the Russian leader over his own intelligence agencies. Trump said “I don’t see any reason why” Russia would interfere in the election and said Putin was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Trump also said he holds “both countries responsible” for poor relations between the U.S. and Russia.
Some Republican senators were harshly critical of the president, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona.
Flake called Trump’s comments “shameful.”
Graham said it “will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves.”
McCain, in a remarkably blistering statement, called Trump’s comments “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain said.