U.S. President Donald Trump, left, receives a soccer ball from Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

McConnell Warns Russia Against Meddling, Floats New Sanctions

(Bloomberg) -- Amid a bipartisan uproar over President Donald Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Russia against meddling again in U.S. elections and said his chamber might take up legislation targeting the country with more sanctions.

“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,” McConnell said at the Capitol Tuesday. Minutes later, Trump at the White House tried to walk back some of his comments by saying he accepted the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, pointed to a bill by Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democrat Chris Van Hollen as one possibility for Senate action. Backed earlier Tuesday by GOP Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, it would impose stiff sanctions on Russia’s energy and banking sectors if Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats -- not Trump -- certifies that Russia interfered in any future election.

Rubio’s bill "targets the 2018 election, the cycle we are right in now with, as I understand it, potential penalties if the Russians do it again," McConnell said. "So yeah, there’s a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this."

Other senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee and moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine, said they want to look at the idea.

‘Very Strong Message’

"That certainly would send a very strong message to the Russians, which is needed to counter what the president said yesterday," said Collins, who said she’s still "astonished" by Trump’s remarks.

The president, standing by Putin’s side at the Helsinki summit meeting Monday, praised the Russian president and questioned the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. A day later in Washington, Trump told reporters he meant to say "wouldn’t" when he said in Helsinki, "I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia doing the election-meddling.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer also backed the idea of legislation to increase sanctions.

"We should have taken action on this kind of legislation long before today," said Schumer of New York. "It’s a good thing, it’s necessary, but hardly sufficient."

Schumer dismissed Trump’s walkback as more weakness and called for a number of legislative actions including passing legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s actions in 2016.

"Another sign of weakness tells President Putin, ‘continue to take advantage of Donald Trump’ because he doesn’t have the courage, the strength, maybe not even the conviction to say to Putin’s face what he tried to say a few minutes ago,” Schumer said.

Corker’s Tariff Bill

Corker also revived his effort to target Trump’s tariffs, saying such pushback would be a "perfect first step" for Congress.

"He’s taxing Americans, he’s pushing our allies away," Corker told reporters. "When he does that he’s strengthening Putin. So to me the very first step that benefits Americans would be for us to go ahead and strongly pass this tariff legislation that we have and take back those authorities."

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch separately went to the Senate floor to warn he would back tariff legislation if Trump doesn’t back off his threats to massively expand his trade war, saying it threatens to undermine an otherwise "roaring" economy.

"If the administration continues forward with its misguided and reckless reliance on tariffs, I will work to advance trade legislation to curtail presidential trade authority," Hatch said.

McConnell Warns Russia Against Meddling, Floats New Sanctions

The flap over Trump’s statements in Helsinki appears to have emboldened some Republicans who’ve shied away from a direct confrontation with the president on issues such as trade because of his tight grip on Republican voters.

The Senate last week passed 88-11 a non-binding resolution sponsored by Corker that endorsed a congressional role in tariffs. But Corker thus far has been unable to get a vote on his bill to require that Trump get congressional approval for tariffs based on national security. The president has announced wide-ranging tariffs on steel and aluminum imports on national security grounds, and is threatening to use that rationale to impose as much as a 25 percent tariff on auto imports.

Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, who has also warned of building momentum to rein in Trump on trade, met with Trump at 2 p.m. along with six other Republicans to talk taxes.

Considering Sanctions

At a press conference Tuesday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan noted Congress passed sanctions against Russia last year, but opened the door to going further.

"If the Foreign Affairs Committee, or the Financial Services Committee, and the Senate Banking Committee, think there are other sanctions that we have not yet placed upon Russia, I’m more than happy to consider those," he said.

While most Republican reaction was critical of the president’s performance, some of the president’s House allies rallied to his defense.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows pushed back on the assertion by former CIA Director John Brennan that Trump’s comments were treasonous.

"In order for something to be treasonous, it has to undermine who we are as a nation,” Meadows said, adding that a press conference has never risen to that threshold.

Trump’s Defenders

Speaking at a "Conversations with Conservatives" event on Capitol Hill, half a dozen House Republicans said people should focus on Trump’s deeds, not his words, citing unrelated conservative priorities such as nominating Supreme Court justices, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. And some blamed reporters for asking the questions that elicited Trump’s answers.

"They asked about election collusion or election meddling," complained Representative Andy Harris of Maryland. "This wasn’t a press conference. A press conference is where you talk about serious issues."

Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona called some of the questions asked of Trump and Putin "idiocy" and said it was good news that Trump and Putin are talking.

Meadows said Russia did meddle in the 2016 presidential election, and said Congress should act to ensure the integrity of future elections. Still, Meadows said he trusts Trump.

"There are times when foreign policy sounds bad and works good," Meadows said.

Corker said he plans to have Secretary of State Michael Pompeo testify before his committee next Thursday on Russia. He said the White House must be thinking about what to do next to try to control the damage from Monday.

"They’ve got to be reeling," the senator said.

A few hours later, Trump appeared before the cameras and said he needed to clarify his remarks.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.