Congressional GOP leadership: No doubt that Russia meddled in 2016 presidential election
House Speaker Paul Ryan says he's willing to consider additional sanctions on Russia, but stopped short of a direct congressional response to President Donald Trump's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (July 17)
WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary break with President Donald Trump, the top two Republicans in Congress said unequivocally Tuesday that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election and suggested that lawmakers may pass legislation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., labeled Russia “a menacing government” that does not share U.S. interests and values and said he would be open to placing more sanctions on Russia for interfering in the election.
“They did interfere in our elections — it’s really clear,” Ryan told reporters in Washington. “There should be no doubt about that.”
A few hours later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaking at a news conference, cited “indisputable evidence” that Russia tried to impact the 2016 election.
“We understand the Russian threat, and I think that is the widespread view here in the United States among members of both parties,” he said.
The strong words from the top congressional leaders came the day after Trump touched off a bipartisan firestorm by accepting denials by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow interfered with the 2016 U.S. election.
Standing beside Putin at a news conference after their summit in Helsinki, Trump accepted the Russian president’s denials over the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.
But then, seeking to quell the furor over his remarks, Trump backtracked on Tuesday and said he accepts the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russians interfered in the election — but he added that others could have been involved as well.
McConnell said Congress has possible options for pushing back against Russia. He specifically highlighted legislation by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that mandates “severe sanctions” if Russia meddles in the next election.
“There’s a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this,” McConnell said. “In the meantime, I think the Russians need to know there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it really better not happen again in 2018.”
In his remarks to reporters, Ryan said he has seen intelligence that left no doubt that Russia interfered in the election.
“Not only did Russia meddle with our elections, they’re doing it around the world,” he said. “They did it to France. They did it to Moldova. They’re doing it to the Baltics. Russia is trying to undermine democracy itself, to delegitimize democracy, so for some reason they can look good by comparison.”
Russia’s interference didn’t have any “material effect” on the U.S. election, Ryan said, but Congress still passed sanctions to hold the country accountable for its actions. Ryan said also he would be open to placing more sanctions on Russia if needed.
“What we intend to do is to make sure they don’t get away with it again,” he said.
While Trump’s embrace of Putin received widespread condemnation, some of the most conservative members of the House GOP caucus said Trump isn’t being given proper credit for holding the summit with Putin. They tried to steer attention away from the Trump-Putin news conference, the outcome of which some blamed on reporters.
The members of the Freedom Caucus, gathered Tuesday for a question-answer session with reporters and bloggers, were asked numerous ways for their reaction to Trump’s remarks. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, finally responded after a reporter asked whether the headline should be that Freedom Caucus leaders fully support Trump’s comments.
“Anybody that watched that press conference, including the president himself, wouldn’t say that was his finest hour,” Davidson said. “But we support the fact that the president was there on the stage having the press conference and having the dialogue and he brought us to the point where we have a chance to make this a better path.
“We should judge more about the deeds and less about the words,” Davidson said.
Rather than focus on the press conference, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said the critique should be of congressional inaction.
“We must pass legislation to make sure that hackers like Russia or China, or whomever it may be, cannot interfere in our electoral process,” Meadows said.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., commended his GOP colleagues who pushed back against Trump but said Republicans needed to follow up their comments with action.
“They need to act in the spirit of Ronald Reagan not in the spirit of Donald Trump,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Too often when the president goes off the reservation, the Republican Party has lightly rebuked his behavior and waited for everyone to move on.”
Schumer said Congress needed to “ratchet up” sanctions against Russia and demand that Trump push for the extradition of the 12 Russians indicted last week on charges of interfering in the 2016 election.
He called for the GOP to bring in Trump’s national security team for a hearing and to stop attacking the Department of Justice, FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.
Schumer also called on Congress to pass legislation that would bolster election security.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters earlier that she’s very interested in the Rubio bill. “I think that bill would send a very strong message to Russia about its ongoing and future meddling in our elections,” she said.
Other legislative possibilities are being discussed, as well.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., also offered legislation requiring the State Department to consider in the next 90 days whether Russia should be listed as a state sponsor of terror.
Another measure that Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said he would introduce Wednesday is intended to end Germany’s dependence on Russian natural gas and make it easier for NATO allies to buy natural gas from the U.S. The legislation would impose sanctions against those involved with a developing natural gas pipeline related to Russia and help foster a Trans-Atlantic energy alliance.
“It’s time for our NATO allies to divest themselves and diversify their energy opportunities,” Barrasso said.
In addition, Democrats, and some Republicans, want to know what Trump and Putin discussed in secret for some two hours on Monday.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced Tuesday it is ready to implement an international security agreement that Putin and Trump reached, but it did not specify what it was.
“We as a nation must know exactly what the president discussed and what he may have promised with President Putin,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. “The American people have a right to know.”
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter to her colleagues that Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., will introduce a resolution endorsing Ryan’s rebuke of Trump’s comments and reaffirming the accuracy of the intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the election.
Trump’s embrace of Putin caused “deep damage” to the U.S. and to all western democracies under Putin’s threat, Pelosi said.
Trump “sided with the enemy,” Pelsoi said, “and the entire world watched.”
Contributing: Herb Jackson