By John Whitesides and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump faced outrage on Tuesday for his failure to hold Russia accountable for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and some U.S. lawmakers threatened action in Congress to punish Moscow and show support for U.S. intelligence agencies.
At a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a summit in Helsinki on Monday, Trump stunned politicians back home by shying away from criticizing Putin for Moscow’s efforts to undermine the election, contradicting the findings of American intelligence agencies.
Trump, whose summit with Putin concluded a week-long Europe trip that included a NATO meeting and talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May, pushed back on Tuesday at the storm of criticism, blaming media coverage.
“While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way – the Fake News is going Crazy!,” he tweeted.
The condemnation for his performance at the Helsinki news conference, including from many fellow Republicans, matched or eclipsed previous controversies in Trump’s turbulent 18 months in office.
“The president needs to understand he has damaged U.S. foreign policy,” Representative Mike Turner, a Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN. “He’s given them a pass and is certainly not holding them accountable for what they’re doing.”
Some lawmakers said they would seek remedies in Congress.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a longtime Trump critic, has raised the idea of passing a resolution that would voice lawmakers’ support for the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. allies, many of who are feeling the sting of strong Trump criticism in recent weeks.
Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, has floated a resolution similar to Flake’s.
Several senators, including Republican Ben Sasse, Republican Pat Toomey, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Mark Warner, the senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, have backed more sanctions on Russia, but it was unclear whether Senate or House of Representatives leaders would support such a move or how new sanctions might be crafted.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, calling Russia’s government “menacing,” said he was willing to consider additional sanctions on Russia, and reiterated his support for U.S. intelligence community findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Congress nearly unanimously passed a sanctions law last year targeting Moscow for election meddling and for its actions in Ukraine and Syria. In April, that law led the U.S. Treasury to impose major sanctions on Russian officials and oligarchs, in one of Washington’s most aggressive moves to punish Moscow.
Schumer also called for the immediate passage of legislation to enhance election security, and reiterated calls for the Senate to hold immediate hearings to get testimony from Trump’s national security team about what transpired during the private Trump-Putin meeting “so we can find out what the heck happened there.”
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded last year that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election campaign and sought to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor, something Moscow has long denied. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is probing that allegation and any possible collusion by Trump’s campaign.
Trump has denied collusion and casts Mueller’s probe as a witchhunt that detracts from his election victory.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called on Tuesday for passage of legislation increasing funding to improve the security of U.S. election equipment and prevent cyberattacks. Pelosi also wants to force a vote on the House floor on a resolution rebuking Trump’s remarks in Helsinki.
Other lawmakers called for members of the Trump administration to resign in protest.
Not all Republicans were angry with the president’s conduct in Helsinki. “The president did a good thing by meeting with Putin,” Senator Rand Paul told CBS “This Morning” program, comments that won him public thanks from Trump on Twitter.
The issue of Russian election interference could come up later on Tuesday, when Trump was scheduled to meet with members of Congress, although it is expected to focus on tax reform.
Russia’s political and media establishment heralded the summit as a victory for Putin in breaking down Western resolve to treat Russia as a pariah.
“The West’s attempts to isolate Russia failed,” read the headline on a report on Monday’s summit meeting in state-run newspaper Rossiisskaya Gazeta.
The summit capped a tumultuous trip during which Trump accused NATO allies of failing to spend enough on their militaries and embarrassed May by saying she had refused to take his advice about how to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. He referred to the European Union as a “foe” in trade and repeatedly criticized it.
(Reporting by John Whitesides and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Amanda Becker; Writing by John Whitesides and Susan Heavey; Editing by Frances Kerry)