WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's explosive comments this week about U.S. intelligence agencies and Russia are reverberating through Minnesota politics, with one of the state's Republican congressmen rebuking Trump while another two remained silent for the second day in a row.
"The bottom line is this: Russia is not our ally, and they need to be confronted about their hostile actions that include interfering in our elections, undermining basic democratic values, poisoning citizens of other countries, cyberattacks," U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen said in an interview Tuesday. "The president should clearly understand and know who we're dealing with in Russia."
Paulsen's fellow Republicans, Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis, continued to decline interview requests, and Emmer issued no public statements in response to Trump's remarks. In a joint appearance Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump said he had no reason to think Russia interfered with the U.S. election in 2016 — despite U.S. intelligence agencies concluding it did. On Tuesday, Trump said he wanted to "clarify" his remarks, saying he had misspoken.
In a Facebook post Tuesday, Lewis said he was "glad the President clarified his remarks." He also reiterated previous remarks that the investigation into Russian election meddling has been politicized.
Paulsen is running for re-election in a swing district that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He has sought to position himself as an independent voice against Trump, though in Congress he has voted with Trump nearly all of the time. By staying quiet even as many fellow Republicans speak out, Lewis and Emmer are taking a different tack — reflecting the reality that the great majority of Republican voters have stood behind Trump even in the face of numerous controversies of his own making.
Dean Phillips, Paulsen's DFL challenger, said his opponent did not go far enough. He wants Paulsen to support a censure of Trump in Congress — a measure he said is largely symbolic but still important. Phillips noted that the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard called for a censure, and he said Trump's statements were part of a pattern of compromising America's principles and values.
"Erik Paulsen's job in times like these is to provide a check on this administration, and I'm hearing from people across the political spectrum that that role is not being filled," Phillips said.
Paulsen wouldn't back a censure, saying that Congress should instead focus on preventing interference in future elections and allow the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to move forward without impeding it any way.
Both Lewis and Emmer represent congressional districts that Trump won in 2016, though Lewis has again been targeted by national Democrats as he again faces DFLer Angie Craig, whom he narrowly beat last time. Jim Innocenzi, a Republican media consultant in D.C., questioned whether Trump's latest controversy would have any real effect on the midterm elections.
"I don't think that constituents really care, if you want the honest-to-God truth," he said. "The Democratic activists do; the Republican activists do ... I think for the average voter, what he says or does neither shocks nor dismays nor affects anybody anymore."
Ian Todd, the DFLer running in Emmer's Sixth Congressional District, said that his opponent's silence on the issue makes him look weak.
"There's a very good chance that he will remain silent because it's typical of him," Todd said. "He's stayed silent on a lot of issues or given slightly nonanswers, and I think that that's the most we can expect from him ... He doesn't want to outright speak in favor of Trump but he never wants to speak against him and he thinks that's the safest move for him politically."
Todd said as he campaigns across the district, he has found voters "who are incredibly concerned about Russia ... this has been an ongoing concern and it has just gotten much bigger to them after this."
Craig also criticized Lewis for not speaking up as they head for their rematch in the Second Congressional District.
"Jason Lewis has been silent on this administration no matter what," Craig said in a statement. "We need leaders who will stand up for our democracy, and put our country over partisan politics when necessary." She said Lewis "should denounce the president's siding with Russia over his own intelligence community immediately."
Paulsen said he would not comment on how his fellow Minnesota Republicans respond to Trump's comments. But he did say that it's "not our obligation to respond every time the president does or doesn't do something."
He pushed back against the idea that Trump's actions would damage the electoral prospects of his fellow Republicans.
"I don't think this has any impact on a broad political level because I think what most folks are looking at are the actions of the president himself," Paulsen said. "A lot of Republicans obviously already are critical of what took place, and so I think it's been pretty uniformly bipartisan and that may be the reason why [Trump] started to walk that back."