WASHINGTON — As U.S. President Donald Trump gets set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, this month, U.S. lawmakers are reminding him that Russia is a bad actor and not a friend.
But on Thursday, administration officials were offering public assurances that they’ve got this under control.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, told reporters that the July 16 summit between the two superpower leaders will include discussions of holding Russia “accountable for its malign activities,” which he characterized as a potential national security threat.
“The president hopes that a meeting can help reduce tensions and lead to constructive engagement that improves peace and security throughout the world,” Huntsman said. “Because you can’t solve problems if you aren’t talking about them.”
A senior administration official confirmed issues on the agenda will include Russia’s support of Syrian military forces, its occupation of Ukrainian territory and its interference in U.S. elections. But the official also acknowledged that Trump will drive the conversation and could deviate from those planned discussion points.
That’s the fear of multiple members of Congress who see Trump’s handling of Putin thus far as too accommodating.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., during his trip to the Baltics this week called Russia “destabilizing” and sent a veiled warning to Trump not to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“Recognizing Crimea as part of Russia would undermine the rules-based international order that was created with U.S. leadership and has caused democracy to thrive around the world and made America a safer home for our citizens,” Corker said in a tweet on Monday, without mentioning Trump directly.
In the “upcoming Helsinki summit, the U.S. must stand firmly with our NATO allies and affirm our transatlantic partnership. Doing otherwise strengthens Putin and undermines democratic values,” Corker added.
Corker was not the only member of Congress in the region. A day later, a group of Republican lawmakers met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in hopes of reviving relations between the two countries.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said he’s come to realize “we have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia,” according to Radio Free Europe video footage.
His view of the upcoming meeting was more upbeat than Corker’s.
“We’re hoping that coming out of the Putin-Trump meeting will be the beginning of a new day,” Shelby said. “We will have to wait and see, but we recognize the world’s better off, I believe, if Russia and the U.S. have fewer tensions.”
The fighting in Ukraine, the Syrian war and allegations that Russia meddled in U.S. elections have frayed ties between Washington and Moscow. The lawmakers urged Russia to leave upcoming midterms alone, with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., telling The Associated Press he called for a “change in behavior” on Moscow’s part.
Democrats took aim at the optics of Senate Republicans meeting with Russians on Independence Day, not long after the Senate Intelligence Committee announced its findings: that Putin was trying to help Trump when Moscow meddled in the 2016 election.
California Democratic Rep. Eric Swallwell, a senior member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, accused the Republicans via Twitter on Wednesday of “cozying up” with Russians, adding: “If they can’t confront Russia, shouldn’t they just stay?”
Yet Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and a delegate on the trip, told Fox News on Thursday that the lawmakers talked tough with Russian officials about their allied nuclear arms treaty violations. Dialogue between the two nuclear-armed nations is important, he said.
“This relationship is at a very strained level, arguably the lowest its been post Cold War,” Daines said. “We sent a very strong message and direct message to the Russian government: First of all, don’t interfere in U.S. elections; second, respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and exit Crimea; and third, work with us in bringing about peace in Syria instead of working against us.”
The talks came ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels next week, from where Trump will depart for the meeting with Putin. With relations between the U.S. and its European allies already strained over Trump’s trade policies, he reportedly sent letters to European leaders threatening consequences if they do not step up their defense spending. (The Pentagon reportedly studied the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Germany.)
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week is set to take up a nonbinding sense-of-the-Senate resolution emphasizing the strategic importance of NATO to the collective security of the transatlantic region — and urging its member states to cooperate to strengthen the alliance.
Several Democratic lawmakers worried publicly whether Trump would champion the post-World War II order in those talks, or democratic values, including Senate Armed Services Committee member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
“President Trump abruptly canceled US-South Korea military exercises after his first meeting with Kim Jong-un ― what he will promise Putin, four months before another American election? Will he be holding the KGB thug accountable for his meddling in our democracy? Doubtful,” Blumenthal said in a June 28 tweet.
A group of senior Senate Democrats pressed Trump in a letter this week: Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Democratic whip; Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; and Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“During your meeting with President Putin, we ask that you convey that there will be clear consequences for Russia’s interference in democratic processes in the United States and elsewhere, its support for violence and bloodshed in Ukraine and Syria, and the illegal occupation of Crimea,” they wrote.
Congress, they warned, “will strongly oppose any step to degrade our strong bilateral relationship with Ukraine, including decreasing security assistance.”
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said on CNN this week that he was troubled Trump appears to be ”trying to reorient U.S. foreign policy towards Russia and away from our democratic allies in Europe.”
“I believe the president is lining us up with an authoritarian dictator instead of with democracies that promote economic and political freedom,” Smith said. “I don’t think that’s what the United States should stand for. And I don’t think it’s in our long-term best interests in terms of our policy.”
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.