As Trump Walks Back Russia Comments, Senate Summons Pompeo for Hearing on Helsinki

The president said he misspoke when he sided with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community, but that may not be enough to quell Republican furor.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak during a joint press conference after their summit on in Helsinki on July 16. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak during a joint press conference after their summit on in Helsinki on July 16. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump tried to walk back his jarring performance with Russian President Vladimir Putin today, as top U.S. lawmakers called for a hearing to sort out what exactly happened when the two leaders met in Helsinki on Monday.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters he was requesting a public hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo next week on the administration’s Russia policy following Trump’s meeting with Putin.

Two congressional aides confirmed to Foreign Policy that Pompeo will publicly testify before the committee next Wednesday. A Republican aide said the panel originally asked to meet him following Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but added Russia to the agenda following the president’s tumultuous meeting with Putin.

The push for a hearing reflects a growing Republican backlash against Trump after his closed-door meeting with Putin and a stormy press conference where he sided with the Russian leader and discounted the U.S. intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

On Tuesday, Trump walked back those comments, reading from a written statement saying he had “full faith” in the U.S. intelligence community and that he misspoke when he said he didn’t think Russia interfered in elections.

Speaking alongside Putin in Helsinki on Monday, Trump said: “He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

On Tuesday, he corrected that sentence, saying: “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative. So, you can put that in. And I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” he added, before immediately casting doubt on that conclusion. “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

The day-after cleanup may not be enough to quell the blowback on Capitol Hill.

In Foggy Bottom, Pompeo has gone silent since the president’s meeting in Helsinki, where the secretary of state met on the sidelines with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, then refused to answer any questions from the press. The hearing could force Pompeo to answer for Trump’s warm overtures to Putin and clarify the administration’s stances on Russia, including potential cooperation on the Syria conflict.

The upcoming hearing is also the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s first on Russia this year, despite what Democratic congressional aides describe as a behind-the-scenes push by lawmakers on the left to get an open hearing on Russia for months.

Corker, who will retire at the end of this Congress and who has been a critic of the president, said on Twitter he thought the “dam is finally breaking” on congressional opposition to some of Trump’s most controversial policies, including his engagement with Putin and protectionist trade policies that have fueled new trade wars with European allies and China.

“As the president taxes Americans with tariffs, he pushes away our allies and further strengthens Putin. It is time for Congress to step up and take back our authorities. We have legislation to do that. Let’s vote,” he tweeted Tuesday morning.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined the chorus of lawmakers pushing back on Trump’s performance in Helsinki but was careful not to openly criticize the president. “We understand the Russian threat, and I think that is the widespread view here in the United States Senate among members of both parties,” he said in press conference on Tuesday, addressing European and NATO allies.

“I think the Russians need to know there that are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it really better not happen again in 2018,” added McConnell, who in 2016 refused to sign a bipartisan statement of condemnation of Russian election meddling.

Trump’s praise for Putin highlights the gap between the president and the rest of his administration when it comes to Russia, a divide that has left European allies scratching their heads.

Angela Stent, a scholar on Russia and Eurasia at Georgetown University, noted that there was a “real disconnect” between the president’s remarks on Russia and the approach taken by the Defense Department, State Department, and Congress.

Last year, Congress passed a robust sanctions act that opens Moscow to harsher economic penalties, while the administration approved the transfer of lethal weapons to Ukraine to help in the fight against Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. The Pentagon has also increased spending on the U.S. military in Europe to help NATO deter Russia from pressuring its neighbors.

“What I see is that the policy of the rest of the executive branch isn’t too different from the Obama administration,” Stent said.

[To read the full transcript of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki on Monday—including the bit that the White House edited out from their transcript—click here.]

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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