WASHINGTON • U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay said Tuesday that it is “obvious” that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has something on our president,” and he said that impeachment of Donald Trump remains an open possibility.
Clay said that it was "very concerning" that in a meeting with Putin in Helsinki on Monday, Trump seemed to give similar weight to Putin’s denials of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections as the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous belief that it happened.
“It raised it several notches to me that the country is at a crisis, and we as a Congress ought to address that, immediately,” Clay, D-St. Louis said. He said that should include giving more election-aid assistance to states and shutting down calls among Republicans to impeach Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Robert Mueller to investigate the 2016 elections.
“We can no longer give cover and comfort to this president after yesterday’s performance,” Clay told the Post-Dispatch, adding that the next four months could determine whether Trump actually faces impeachment. That's the time between now and November congressional elections, where control of the House and Senate is in play.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said that "there is no evidence" to back up Clay's suspicions that Putin has damaging information on Trump.
But Blunt and other Republican congressional leaders also tried to repair U.S. alliances after the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki.
Trump, under fire, said Tuesday that he accepted U.S. intelligence agency's conclusions of Russian meddling in 2016.
Clay’s comments came on a day in which the entire Republican Senate leadership team, including Blunt, came to the microphone at a weekly press conference with reporters to try to calm allies' fears.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said he will introduce legislation that would label Russia a state sponsor of terror. Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., said he will introduce a bill Wednesday that will make it easier for Euopean allies to buy U.S. natural gas, and impose tougher sanctions on companies that participate in a pipeline project between Germany and Russia – a big Trump criticism in a meeting with NATO last week.
Blunt described hearings he is having to decide what, if any, laws Congress can pass to guard against future attempts by Russia, and other hostile foreign powers, to meddle in U.S. elections.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “the most significant military alliance in world history.”
“We believe the European countries are our friends, and the Russians are not,” McConnell said, citing that country's annexation of Crimea, invasion of Ukraine, meddling in U.S. elections, and alleged poisoning of adversaries in Britain.
Blunt, one of the more measured members of the GOP leadership, is a barometer on the degree of concern in his party about the message that Trump’s appearance with Putin gave to allies around the globe. Blunt's critique of Trump has escalated since last week.
“I don’t think any of us have taken the position that (Trump) shouldn’t have met with the leader of Russia, or that we shouldn’t have those discussions,” Blunt said. “The general view that I hold certainly is when you meet with the leader of Russia or China or Korea, you just need to understand who you are meeting with. This is not a person you should have great confidence in. This is not a person that, without complete verification and transparency, you should assume is telling the truth. And certainly (Putin) is not a person whose view of a subject should be equal in weight to the view of the intelligence-foreign policy committee you have surrounded yourself with.”
The Intelligence Committee that Blunt serves on has investigated Russian attempts to disrupt U.S. elections for almost two years, and has come to the same conclusions that U.S. intelligence agencies have: that there were widespread attempts by Russian hackers to influence U.S. elections in 2016, but that there is no evidence as of yet that Trump’s campaign colluded in those efforts.
Special investigator Robert Mueller last week announced the indictment of 12 Russians on suspicion of cyber-attacking U.S. political organizations, and on Monday another alleged Russian operative was indicted for trying to infiltrate and influence the National Rifle Association. Blunt said those indictments may indicate that Mueller is drawing that investigation toward a conclusion, although he said he had no non-public knowledge of that.
“I think the president has a hard time separating, in his mind, the idea that the Russians could have interfered from the idea that somehow that he was complicit in that,” Blunt said. “There is no reason to believe that, and the Mueller investigation I think should and will come to a conclusion and I think it should come to a conclusion pretty soon.”
Blunt said that he did not understand the value of Trump meeting alone with Putin for two hours. That meeting, which included only translators and the two leaders, has been highly criticized by intelligence officials, given Putin’s history as a KGB agent.
“That is the president’s decision to make, not mine,” Blunt said. “I am sure on both sides there was an immediate effort to try to download from the principles what was said. I hope that was effective.”
Democrats doubled down on their Trump attacks Tuesday.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Democratic leader in the Senate, said in a floor speech Tuesday that “we watched in disbelief as the president not only refused to even acknowledge the act of cyber war against the United States, but incredibly blamed America first for our poor relationship with Russia”
His comment came — amid rising rebuke by his own party — about 27 hours after his original, statement widely reported statement sa ying he had no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the election.