Trump sparks Republican rift on Russia


John Thune is pictured. | POLITICO

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is urging President Donald Trump “to give no ground” to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two leaders meet next week. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

The GOP is increasingly divided as Trump undermines NATO and warms to Vladimir Putin.

Republicans are having a Russian identity crisis.

The congressional GOP is openly struggling with the United States’ relationship with Russia during President Donald Trump’s overseas trip this week — with some worried about fraying U.S. alliances and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s growing influence and others pleased to see improved relations and fearful of getting on the wrong side of the leader of their own party.

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The divisions come as Trump lashed out at other NATO member nations in Brussels on Wednesday for taking “unfair” advantage of U.S. military might and several days after a delegation of GOP senators visited Russia and were promptly used by Moscow’s messaging apparatus, which painted them as weak.

The party’s stance will come to a head on Monday when Trump meets with Putin one-on-one in Helsinki. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) expressed frustration with the propaganda that followed his recent visit and urged Trump to take a hard line with Putin when they sit down together.

“It’s state-owned media. It’s total disinformation. That’s what they do. You just have to know that going in,” the No. 3 GOP leader said. “I hope the president’s very firm. I just think in a one-on-one like that he’s going to have to give no ground.”

After Trump’s swing through NATO meetings this week, where he bashed longtime ally Germany and harangued NATO countries over their lackluster defense spending, the GOP will find its historically tough-on-Russia position under further duress.

“Things that are said to try to create instability, all that does is strengthen Putin,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “I was just in the region last week, and it’s really disturbing to hear the conversations people are having at the highest of levels [about] whether we’re reliable or not.”

Yet Corker’s colleagues may be contributing to such doubts.

As part of a GOP delegation to Russia during the July Fourth recess, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said the two nations need not “be adversaries,” pointing to the upcoming Trump-Putin meeting as the possible start of a “new day.”

So is Russia — which the U.S. intelligence community determined interfered in the 2016 elections to aid Trump — the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States, as Mitt Romney claimed in 2012? Or is Putin “fine,” as Trump put it last week? It’s not a question that Republicans can answer clearly.

“I don’t want to have it degrade into ‘enemy,’” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said of the U.S.-Russia relationship after spending hours meeting with top Russian officials last week. “Right now, I’d like to think we’re no worse than unfriendly adversaries.”

In advance of Trump’s meeting with Putin, GOP lawmakers are on eggshells about how to respond to a summit with someone Republicans have called a “thug” and an “enemy” of U.S. ideals. Corker said that “to go in a room alone and have the Russian media portray it however they portray it is not a good thing,” advising Trump to take along his defense secretary and secretary of state.

“I don’t object to people talking. But any kind of commitments that come out of those discussions ultimately need to [be] under the authorization and the concurrence of Congress,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a Navy Reserve lieutenant, said Trump’s “rhetoric toward Russia and Putin has always been [a] concern to me” and that he is worried about what Trump might say to Putin — or rather what he won’t say. He wants Trump to press him on election interference and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“If he took the same posture toward Russia as he did today toward Germany, I will sleep much better at night,” Banks said.

Still, other members of the GOP say they trust the president, with Sen. David Perdue of Georgia taking a swipe at special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into potential collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

“Why not?” asked Perdue. “I don’t see any downside of that at all. I wish the Mueller investigation would go ahead and give us their adjudication because we know he’s going to clear the president. … That puts the president on much stronger footing in terms of dealing with Putin.”

The internal struggle in the GOP was a split-screen affair this month: While eight congressional Republicans visited Russia over the July Fourth recess, Corker and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) were in the Baltic region with two Democrats and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

In Latvia, Flake said the Russian-speaking populace hears “propaganda every day that the alliance is weak, that NATO is weak.”

“Then to have our president pile on and use the same language and rhetoric used by the Russians? It’s awful,” Flake said.

Yet since Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, there’s been a palpable shift in the Republican Party’s view toward Russia: Thirty percent of Republicans view Russia favorably, compared with 15 percent of Democrats, according to Gallup. Attitudes were about even two years ago.

“You see polling out there that Republicans and conservatives are more in line to favor Russia or their position or some of the things they say rather than support the NATO alliance. That’s disturbing,” Flake said.

Flake and other Republicans say they are doing what they can given that Trump is the leader of their party. Both chambers this week passed resolutions expressing support for NATO. The move is toothless, but it is the only way GOP leaders seem comfortable expressing their squeamishness regarding Trump’s closeness to Putin while he’s abroad.

“I subscribe to the view that we should not be criticizing the president while he’s overseas, but let me say … NATO is indispensable,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.

One GOP senator said Trump’s NATO rhetoric is “literally bullshit” but was still mulling how to respond to Trump publicly.

“A number of us think that the rules are not well enough defined about what to say when a president’s abroad,” the senator said. “A lot of people are thinking about what to say later.”

Still, Trump’s view that NATO members need to spend more on their own defense is gaining currency in all corners of the party, from occasional critics like Corker to reliable Trump allies like Perdue. And several Republicans applauded his blasting of the German-Russia pipeline deal.

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) just last week was in Berlin meeting with countries in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who worried about Germany’s pipeline, too. Hudson welcomed Trump’s comments and called them a “big deal.”

Germany’s pipeline is “a massive ‘screw you’ to our allies, and I’m actually impressed that he brought that up,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, who’s never been afraid to call out Trump for controversial moves.

Still, Kinzinger said, “I don’t necessarily like the tone he takes toward NATO.” He noted that the only time NATO has actually activated Article 5 — the clause in its charter that declares an attack on one member to be an attack on all — was to defend the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I think we benefit from NATO as much as NATO benefits from us,” Kinzinger said. “And the reality is, having NATO in existence prevents Russia from doing things they shouldn’t.”

Elana Schor contributed to this report.

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