President Donald Trump’s defense of the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin did nothing to quell furor on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on Wednesday demanded answers from the administration and pressed punitive legislation aimed at Moscow.
“Americans and the members of this committee deserve to know what the president and foreign autocrats are agreeing to behind closed doors,” said the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey.
Menendez expressed consternation over Russian statements signaling a willingness to launch security cooperation agreements Trump and Putin allegedly agreed to during their encounter.
“Pro-Kremlin media at this moment are putting out more information … than anything that I know as the senior-most Democrat on this committee, than any member of the committee knows, and that the American people know,” he said.
Testimony in Senate
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to testify before the committee next week. The panel’s chairman, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, said Democrats are not alone in demanding answers.
“I take a back seat to no one on challenging what happened at NATO, what happened in Helsinki,” Corker said in response to Menendez. “I look forward to working with you in putting whatever pressure we need to put on the administration to make sure we find out [details of Trump’s trip].”
One day after insisting he misspoke during Monday’s press conference with Putin in which he did not defend U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Trump blasted critics of his performance in Helsinki and proclaimed the summit a success.
Of his closed-door meeting with the Russian leader, Trump wrote on Twitter that he and Putin “discussed many important subjects” and added: “Big results will come!”
National security team excluded
Democrats’ suspicions of Trump have risen to new heights, prompting an unprecedented demand — that the U.S. interpreter who attended the Trump-Putin meeting testify as to what was said. The Senate’s Democratic minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, noted that Trump excluded all members of his national security team from the private chat with Putin.
“President Trump wanted no one else in the room. So to have the translator come testify and tell what happened there is an imperative,” Schumer said. “It is rare for translators to come before Congress, but in this case it’s warranted.”
Republican leaders did not echo that call, but some Republican lawmakers reaffirmed their support for bipartisan legislation to further sanction Russia if it meddles in U.S. midterm elections in November, and to protect the special counsel in the Justice Department’s Russia probe, Robert Mueller, a frequent target of Trump’s ire.
“The only thing that Vladimir Putin understands is deterrence,” Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said, advocating the DETER Act that he and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen introduced in the chamber.
“Sanctions will go into effect immediately if the Director of National Intelligence … determines that Russia is once again interfering in our elections,” he added. “So that before he [Putin] even does it [orders meddling], he has a very clear understanding of what the price is going to be.”
Separately, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake told reporters he is working with Democrats to craft a Senate resolution affirming support for America’s intelligence community and demanding the administration fully brief lawmakers on Trump’s discussions with Putin in Helsinki.
Flake has said he was “floored” by the Trump-Putin news conference, calling it “shameful.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, on Tuesday did not rule out Russia-related votes, saying “there’s a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this.”
Election security push
In the U.S. House, Democrats tried bringing an amendment providing $380 million in funding for election cybersecurity up for consideration Wednesday. Republicans blocked the measure from coming up for a vote, arguing previously approved funding is still available for states seeking assistance.
“I don’t know what the hell else we can do over here,” Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said on the House floor after the attempt Wednesday. “I think the American people want us to do something. What happened in the 2016 election, what Russia did to our country, was a serious matter.”
House Democrats also proposed censuring the president for his remarks in Helsinki as well as legislation protecting special counsel Mueller’s investigation into allegations the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election.
With just a handful of days left in session, House Republicans are unlikely to take any politically risky moves that would distance themselves from the president ahead of November’s midterms elections, which will determine party control of the U.S. Congress.
But retiring Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican from Pennsylvania, told VOA Tuesday he did think this controversy would go away.
“It takes a little time to ascertain what the appropriate additional checks and balances might have to be. There’s at minimum a lot of frustration and embarrassment and just not accepting what happened,” Costello said.
Katherine Gypson contributed.