WASHINGTON – Republicans across the ideological spectrum rebuked President Donald Trump after Monday's extraordinary news conference with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, with House Speaker Paul Ryan admonishing Trump and declaring, "There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia."
Sen. John McCain called it "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."
Ryan was joined by other GOP congressional leaders — including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader — whose reactions ranged from disappointment to shock at the way Trump publicly dismissed the conclusions of his own national intelligence director that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, blamed both the U.S. and Russia for poor relations between the two countries, and seemingly invited Russia to cooperate with the investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called it "bizarre and flat-out wrong." Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., declared it "shameful."
But the most senior Republican leaders muted their response and avoided attaching Trump's name to their generalized statements that they believe the intelligence agencies and still see Russia as an enemy. At least one Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, delivered a full-throated defense of the president: "I think it's a good idea to have engagement, and I guess I don't quite understand all of the people who have gone completely deranged criticizing the president."
McConnell uttered three terse sentences: "The Russians are not our friends. I've said that repeatedly, I say it again today. And I have complete confidence in our intelligence community and the findings that they have announced." He refused to answer questions.
No Republican in Congress pledged any particular action to punish Trump, such as holding up his nominees, nor did they promise hearings or increased oversight.
It was left to McConnell's Democratic counterpart, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, to demand actual action from Congress.
"In the entire history of our country, Americans have never seen a president of the United States support an American adversary the way President Trump has supported President Putin," Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor.
"A single, ominous question now hangs over the White House: What could possibly cause President Trump to put the interests of Russia over those of the United States? Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump," he added.
Schumer outlined four specific actions: increase sanctions on Russia; demand that Trump's national security team testify before Congress; defend the Justice Department and other intelligence agencies; and demand that Trump press Putin to extradite the 12 Russian agents.
Several Minnesota Democrats in Congress harshly condemned Trump's remarks about Russia and election interference, including U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. "I think it's just shocking and I didn't think I could be shocked anymore — I think it makes him look weak," Smith said of Trump.
GOP congressmen Jason Lewis and Tom Emmer did not immediately respond to a request from the Star Tribune for comment. But U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican, tweeted that Trump's performance in Helsinki was embarrassing.
"An American president taking the side of a Russian dictator over American intelligence agencies is dangerous," he wrote. "It's clear they meddled in our elections, and they should be held accountable for it."
But Republican leaders did not appear ready to shift tactics beyond measured words. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, told reporters that it was "wishful thinking" to expect Putin to agree to the extradition. "Much of what Senator Schumer's asking for I think we've already done," he added.
As GOP leaders struggled to come up with tactful ways to respond to a stunning news conference, responses from some of their colleagues marked a moment when Republicans could not defend their president.
Beyond Capitol Hill, even some personalities on Fox News signaled they were done defending the president's actions.
Neil Cavuto, a Fox Business Network host, called Trump's performance "disgusting."
Star Tribune staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this report.