A group of Senate Republicans planning to meet with top Russian officials just days before President Donald Trump's summit with his Russian counterpart say they will encourage leaders to stop interfering elections abroad during their meetings with officials – even as the president tweeted a much more conciliatory message Thursday morning.
None of the senators said explicitly that they feared Trump might use a softer tone with Putin, but they made clear that Russia’s aggressive actions in election cycles, as well as military incursions in Ukraine and the Middle East, will be top priorities on their congressional delegation trip.
“Russia has decided to meddle in other countries' elections, including ours. Russia has invaded Ukraine, taken Crimea, it's prolonging the war in Syria. And I'd prefer to be a friend of Russia and that's one of the things we're going to talk about. I would like to respectfully ask the Russians to stay in their own lane,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., one of the senators who will be on the trip.
“It's useful for the Russians to know that we are of the belief, evidence is clear, that they intruded in our elections and it will be something I hope that members of Congress convey,” added Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, also noting that senators had planned their trip before the Trump/Putin summit, to be held in Helsinki on July 16, was announced.
The meeting was organized by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who told ABC Thursday that they are hoping to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but that the meetings were not yet confirmed. Other attendees include Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., John Hoeven, R-N.D. and John Thune, R-S.D.
But if the president’s tweets are any indication, his message about election meddling will be very different.
He called into question whether Russia had even actually interfered in the election despite the unanimous conclusion of the 17 agencies that comprise the United States intelligence community.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is not going on the trip but is a top Senate voice on foreign policy issues, said the president would miss a major opportunity if he did not make election interference Topic Number One during the summit.
“If he meets with Putin and he doesn't bring up the elephant in the room about what they've done to undermine democracy here and all over the world, it would be a big mistake,” he said.
He also said he was concerned about the president’s tweet Thursday morning and that he had composed a nonbinding Senate resolution, which he subsequently withdrew, that would have urged the president to challenge Putin’s denial of interference.
“President Trump: When Russia says they didn't, they're lying,” he said.
The potential divergence between Senate Republicans’ message to Putin and the president also reflects the differences that have manifested in legislation. In August 2017, Congress sent to Trump’s desk, and he begrudgingly signed, a bipartisan bill imposing new actions on Russia. But the White House also issued a statement slamming slammed Congress for what it considered legislative interference in executive authority. The administration then took its time imposing the sanctions on any new recipients, failing to do so until March 2018.
While senators might be concerned that the president does not send a strong message to Putin not to interfere in American democracy, members on both sides of the aisle are supportive of the fact that the meeting is happening.
“At the height of the cold war, American presidents of both parties had productive summits with leaders of the Soviet Union,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said. But he said the meeting should be much more substantive than Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which Coons characterized as “more press event.”
“It is appropriate to speak to the leader of Russia; it is not appropriate to have a summit with him where we are not centrally focused on the threat that he poses to NATO, to the United States and to the Western alliance,” Coons said.