WASHINGTON — After President Donald Trump’s stunning press conference Monday beside Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. lawmakers of both parties quickly rebuked Trump for embracing Putin’s assertion that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But beyond messaging, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Republicans to take action, to ratchet up sanctions on Russian defense and intelligence services — and to abandon efforts to enact a “special rule,” favored by the Pentagon, that would allow the Trump administration to waive some penalties on U.S. allies for buying Russian weapons.
It was part of the avalanche of criticism for Trump after he sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies and his national security advisers, whose consensus view is Russia attacked the U.S. elections. “They said, ‘I think it is Russia.’ I have President Putin. He just said it is not Russia,” Trump said in Helsinki.
Detailing actions he says Republican colleagues must take to remedy the damage, Schumer called the summit, “an insult to all Americans: Democrats, Republicans, independents. We have to stand up together to push back.”
“If we wait much longer, our global alliances will fracture, the institutions we created in the wake of World War II will crumble, our allies will consider abandoning us to China and others — and Putin’s Russia will emerge stronger,” Schumer said.
Democrats are eyeing language from the House-passed 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would afford more flexibility to waive sanctions required by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which Congress overwhelmingly passed last year. The Senate-passed bill did not have a corresponding provision.
Schumer’s remarks threw a spotlight on negotiations between the House and Senate as they work out various differences in their competing versions of the bills behind closed doors. Lawmakers and their staffs are rushing the effort, aiming to wrap up before the end of July, though it’s unclear they will.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has asked lawmakers to permit special national security exemptions for U.S. allies who are buying Russian systems but intend to eventually stop, citing India, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Mattis told lawmakers in April that he wanted the ability to appeal to the secretary of state when it’s in the country’s interest to waive Russian sanctions. "Then we get an internal management of this process, but it keeps us from being boxed in by the Russians,” he said.
Democrats are argue the proposed fix is over-broad and would just give Trump the power to undo the sanctions on anyone, as long as he declares it’s because they’re altering their ties with Russia. “His record doesn’t necessarily suggest he’d feel confined to use the power just for that narrow purpose,” said one House Democratic aide.
It’s unclear whether Republicans will accede to Schumer’s demands, but a fraction of them have been critical of Trump’s Helsinki conduct.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., called Trump’s press conference with Putin, “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” The summit was “a tragic mistake” and Trump displayed “naivete” and “egotism,” he said.
Trump’s national security team is “competent and patriotic,” which made it “inexplicable” that they allowed the president’s “blunders and capitulations,” McCain said, adding: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant."
Separately, another frequent Republican critic of Trump’s approach to foreign policy, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, told reporters he was “disappointed and saddened” by Trump’s remarks.
“I felt like that everyone who’s dealt with Putin understands fully that the best way to deal with him is through strength,” said Corker, R-Tenn. “And I just felt like the president’s comments made us look as a nation more like a pushover, and I was disappointed in that.”
The Senate overwhelmingly passed a measure in support of NATO at the top of Trump’s trip to express support for NATO and calls for a whole-of-government strategy to counter Russia’s meddling in the U.S. and other democracies.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.