Ryan, other members of Congress, weigh how to respond to Trump's Putin remarks

Written by on July 17, 2018

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — While House Speaker Paul Ryan struggled Tuesday to defend President Donald Trump’s performance with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, without criticizing him directly, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor with a laundry list of things he says it’s obvious Congress should do in response to Trump’s remarks.

They are, in the order Schumer presented them: Increase sanctions on Russia; demand that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other members of the Trump national security team in Helsinki testify before Congress; stop attacking special counsel Robert Mueller; urge Trump to extradite the 12 indicted Russians; bolster U.S. election security.

“Our Republican colleagues cannot just go ‘tsk, tsk, tsk.’ They must act if they want to help America,” Schumer said.

That’s a pretty thorough list of the options Congress could take in order to send a message to Trump, the American people and allies around the world. But each measure has a different likelihood of being implemented, based on a number of political and policy-related risks and rewards that each lawmaker would weigh individually.

Here’s a look at what’s being discussed.

Stronger sanctions?

Congress relatively recently passed strict new sanctions on Russia which the Trump administration has only reluctantly implemented. Ryan expressed openness to increasing the pressure through sanctions if lawmakers identify new targets.

“What we intend to do is to make sure that they don’t get away with it again,” Ryan said during a news conference Tuesday.

And that jibes with a bill from Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would impose new sanctions on Russia’s finance, energy and defense sectors if the director of national intelligence determines that the Kremlin has interfered again in U.S. elections.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Tuesday expressed support of the bill and the notion in general of imposing more sanctions on Russia.

“By putting restrictions on banks and Russia not doing business with American banks, it’s going to do real harm to Russia’s economy,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said.

“That certainly would send a very strong message to the Russians, which is needed to counter what the president said yesterday,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, added.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., had a response that was briefer but to the point: “Sanctions, sanctions, sanctions,” he said.

The question is how Senate leadership feels about bringing such a bill to the Senate floor.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Monday did not rule out new sanctions but did note that Congress had already gotten “dramatic” penalties signed into law, however reluctantly the administration is implementing them.

“Much of what Sen. Schumer’s asking for I think we’ve already done,” Cornyn said.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who expressed openness to additional sanctions, urged reporters to keep their expectations realistic in terms of how quickly they’d see Congress move on such legislation.

“Congress doesn’t function in a way where you have an incredibly poor performance by the president in really over the last 10 days and then all of a sudden, the next day pass things,” he said.

The Senate also wants to see the House version of the annual defense policy bill — the NDAA — drop a provision that would allow the president to lift sanctions on Russia with very few preconditions. But Corker Tuesday said he wasn’t even aware of that House provision, meaning it’s not really on the Senate’s radar yet.

Testimony?

There is a bipartisan desire to hear from top Cabinet officials on what was said during the private meeting between Trump and Putin.

“I’m calling on Leader McConnell and his leadership team to immediately request a hearing with Secretary of State Pompeo and the rest of the team from Helsinki so we can find out what the hell happened there,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Corker told reporters that Pompeo might come in to brief members of his committee next week. Pompeo has not yet briefed the panel on the Singapore summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, so the original briefing would have only been on that, but would now include Helsinki, too.

“We need to find out who was giving [Trump] patriotic advice and who was giving him unpatriotic advice,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the committee, said Monday.

Calls for extradition?

Lawmakers have already dismissed out of hand Putin’s offer to have reciprocal interrogation, wherein Russian officials invite Americans to witness them interrogating the 12 newly-indicted Russian operatives in exchange for the same opportunity in the United States. The president had called the offer an “interesting idea.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Cornyn told reporters Monday.

But some senators – including at least one Republican – are urging Trump to demand that Russia extradite the twelve to the United States.

“Ask for the extradition of the 12 criminals that invaded our election process and secondly, to be very strong,” Judiciary chairman Grassley said when asked for his advice to Trump.

“You mess in our election again and there’s going to be big consequences.”

But it’s not clear whether Republican leadership will embrace that message. Cornyn yesterday called the suggestion “wishful thinking.”

“Putin’s not going to extradite those intelligence officers,” he added. It remains to be seen whether that dissuades Congress from speaking with one voice urging the president to demand extradition anyway.

Bolstering election security?

Congress also included $380 million in funding in this year’s omnibus spending bill to bolster states’ election infrastructure. But there are additional bills that have been circulating for months that would more directly bolster U.S. election security than imposing additional sanctions after the fact.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mark Warner, D-Va., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced the Honest Ads Act in October 2017, intended to prevent foreign influence in online political ads, as Russia allegedly did in 2016 using platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It would impose public disclosure requirements on online political advertisements similar to those that already exist for TV, radio and satellite ads. A companion bill in the House was sponsored by Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Mike Coffman, R-Colo.

Klobuchar and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., also have a separate bill that would streamline cybersecurity information-sharing between federal intelligence agencies and state election agencies.

A congressional aide told ABC that the Klobuchar-Lankford bill has picked up additional Republican sponsors and has “a lot of momentum,” especially after the Helsinki meeting. Both senators have been working with their party’s leadership teams to move the bill forward in the hopes of eventually holding a floor vote.

But the aide said that bill has a “higher likelihood of crossing the finish line” than Honest Ads, which has not picked up any Republicans beyond McCain, who is in his home state of Arizona undergoing cancer treatment. In the meantime, the bill’s sponsors have been urging social media companies to implement its requirements voluntarily.

In a statement released before the Helsinki meeting, Klobuchar urged Trump to tell Putin about congressional efforts to strengthen U.S. election security.

“Bipartisan support in Congress is important but there is no substitute for Presidential leadership and action,” she said.

Other measures?

Another likely measure that is already being discussed, according to several senators, is another nonbinding “sense of the Senate” resolution to condemn Trump’s remarks in Helsinki, where he questioned U.S. intelligence on Russian election interference and blamed his own country for Russian aggression.

On the House side, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., will introduce a resolution “endorsing” Speaker Ryan’s written statement from Monday defending the U.S. intelligence community. She also said Democrats would call for increased funding for grants to states regarding election security, and teased that Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, will introduce his own resolution in the coming days to criticize the president.

House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., also attempted to offer a motion for the House Judiciary Committee to adjourn a hearing on social media filtering Tuesday in order to go into executive session and discuss Russian threats to the U.S. electoral process.

But as Corker noted, such measures can deliver a message, but not much else.

“Those are nice, you know, and we did that to show support for our NATO allies and for NATO itself, but they don’t do anything,” Corker noted of similar resolutions that have already passed the Senate.

Corker wants to see the Senate take up what has become a priority of his: a bill to prevent the president from unilaterally imposing tariffs on other countries on the basis of national security.

But that bill has not previously received the support from Senate leadership needed to bring it up for a vote, and it’s not clear that it would be called up now as a means of responding to Trump’s comments in Helsinki.

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