Unfiltered Political News

Trump's new midterm threat: A trade war smacking voters

President Donald Trump’s trade wars could become a major political drag for Republicans, with job losses and price increases piling up just as voters head to the polls in November.

Trump jolted markets once again early Friday when he said he’s prepared to impose penalties on some $500 billion in Chinese goods regardless of the consequences that might ensue, economic or political. “Look, I’m not doing this for politics,” the president said on CNBC. “I’m doing this to do the right thing for our country.”

But market analysts, industry experts and economists warn that the economic fallout of the president’s tariffs — those that are already in effect and those he’s threatening to impose — is only going to intensify over the coming months and could reach a peak around election time.

“We’re already hearing complaints now from companies, so by the time we get to the midterms, you’re going to be hearing governors, mayors, Congress complaining about jobs, about cost increases, about problems,” Carlos Gutierrez, the former Commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, told POLITICO. “The question is: Will that be strong enough to offset the idea that we have to get tough on our trading partners, and that our jobs are being stolen overseas?”

It takes months for most consumers to feel the impact of tariffs, but as the fall approaches, everything from groceries to appliances could start to cost more at major retailers across the country. Democrats could use these price increases as a political cudgel against Republicans in swing districts as they try to take back control of Congress.

Trump has so far suffered little political blowback for his tariffs and trade threats, saying that he is simply following through on promises he made during the campaign to crack down on trading partners, even close allies, and put America first. Since March, he has imposed blanket tariffs on nearly all imports of steel and aluminum and placed penalties on $34 billion in goods from China, a total likely to increase to $50 billion next month and into the hundreds of billions later this year.

In return, countries have retaliated with tit-for-tat duties on everything from U.S. agricultural goods to Kentucky bourbon and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, aiming to sway top Republican lawmakers by hurting constituents in their districts.

But Trump and his party could soon begin to face consequences as companies in the coming months start reporting lower earnings, reassessing their supply chains and holding back on investment, all of which will begin to ripple throughout the economy and could lead to a slowdown or full-blown recession, experts say.

If all of the tariffs that have been proposed take effect, they would bring down long-run U.S. GDP by 0.47 percent — about $118 billion — in the long term and cost more than 364,000 jobs, a new analysis from the Tax Foundation shows. The International Monetary Fund also warned this week that trade tensions could cut global output by some $400 billion by 2020, and that the U.S. is “especially vulnerable” to effects of an international slowdown.

Price increases would vary by product, ranging anywhere from a few cents on a can of beer or soup to around $6,000 on a family car, if the administration moves forward with auto-specific tariffs it has threatened.

Even if Trump doesn’t move forward with any additional duties, the uncertainty caused by his policies and rhetoric is leading some companies to begin pulling back investments in research and development. They’re afraid that if they develop products for foreign markets, those markets might no longer be accessible to them in six months or a year.

The agricultural industry has been particularly vulnerable: Countries like Mexico have begun to diversify their import markets by buying more corn and soybeans from Brazil instead of the United States, in an attempt to reduce their dependence on a country that could erect new trade barriers at any time based on the president’s whims.

And while the administration has so far taken pains to avoid hitting consumers directly, leaving products like flat-screen televisions and cellphones off the list of products facing tariffs, they will be unable to continue to do so as the list of goods caught in the crossfire begins to expand.

“If this escalates into a full-blown trade war, the innocent victims are going to be American consumers,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. “That’s what we’d like to avoid.”

As midterm campaigns heat up, vulnerable Democrats and Democratic super PACs are already using the president’s trade war — and the Republican Party’s reluctance so far to challenge him on it — to frame their opponents as complicit in an escalating trade battle with no end in sight.

The Democrat-aligned group American Bridge launched an effort Thursday aimed at targeting Republican candidates for, as the group says, “failing to stand up to Trump’s trade war.” In one of two launch ads, the group targets Josh Hawley, who is running to unseat Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, for saying that he supports Trump’s goals on trade and feels that the president is doing the right thing.

“Hawley welcomed this trade war,” it reads at the end of a minute-long spot featuring clips of local farmers and manufacturers complaining about the harmful effects of Trump’s tariffs. “Now Missouri families are paying the price.”

The president has so far ignored increasing calls from Republicans in Congress to back down on trade, or at least to begin pursuing dialogue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The White House insisted this week that trade talks with Beijing are ongoing, but there are no formal discussions on the books and the two sides have not met at the ministerial level since Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross traveled to China early last month. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will have informal opportunities to talk with his Chinese counterparts at the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting in Buenos Aires this weekend, but no formal bilateral meetings are expected.

Instead, Trump has sought ways to expand his tariff crusade: Beyond ratcheting up duties against China, he has directed the Commerce Department to conduct investigations examining whether to impose penalties on imports of cars and car parts, as well as uranium. And he has continued to frustrate Canada and Mexico by refusing to back down from what they see as unreasonable demands in the ongoing renegotiation of NAFTA.

Moving forward with either car tariffs or a NAFTA withdrawal before November elections would be an “enormous political mistake,” said Bill Reinsch, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If he does that, you’ll see an immediate sharp consumer impact, which I think will translate into a political reaction. Everything else will be like sand leaking out of the bag.”

But even the slow accumulation of economic effects could build up enough by November that consumers will be feeling the pain. It might be difficult for everyday Americans to recognize at this point how the tariffs will affect them, given that many of those proposed are not yet in effect, so in the meantime, the retail industry is working to educate consumers that “there are greater consequences, and price increases and real impacts” that could be coming in the near future, Shay said.

“That’s going to create a lot more attention around the things that right now sound a lot more hypothetical,” he added.

So far, at least, polls show that Trump appears to still have the support of the bulk of Republican voters when it comes to tariffs. Nearly three-fourths, or 73 percent, of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who responded to a Pew Research survey out this week said they felt increased tariffs would benefit the country. Roughly the same percentage — or 77 percent — of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents felt the opposite.

But reaction overall is trending increasingly negative: Nearly half, or 49 percent, of all respondents to the Pew poll said they feel tariffs are a bad thing for the country, up 4 percentage points from a similar survey done in May.

The partisan split bodes well for Trump, who has so far shown little willingness to heed anyone’s advice over trade policy beyond his own and who will likely barge into the midterms with the same protectionist messages that helped him win over laid-off factory workers and struggling farmers in 2016.

Democrats might try to point to a worsening economy to say that Trump’s policies are wreaking havoc across middle America, but the White House has already begun to fire back that the long-term payoff will be worth it.

“It’ll be those two competing narratives” during midterm campaigns, said Gutierrez, who now chairs the board of the National Foreign Trade Council. “It all depends on how bad the numbers get and how much pain there is that can’t be offset by simply saying, ‘We’re doing this for the country and we’re getting tough on our trading partners, so it’s worth the pain.’”

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How the Fed’s Powell prepared for Trump’s criticism

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has been preparing for this moment.

Since taking the helm of the central bank in February, Powell has downplayed the risk that President Donald Trump would try to influence the direction of Fed policy. “No one in the administration has said anything to me that really gives me concern on this front,” he declared on “Marketplace” radio last week.

But at the same time, Powell, a Trump appointee, has worked for months to shore up goodwill and support for the Fed. He held more than two dozen meetings with lawmakers from February to May, steered clear of commenting on issues outside the Fed’s jurisdiction and repeatedly made the case for the central bank’s political independence.

The moment that Powell had to have known was coming finally arrived on Thursday. “I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up,” Trump told CNBC. “I’m not thrilled.” That was followed by a couple of sharp tweets the next morning.

Powell did not put out a statement in response, letting his words from the interview last week stand on the question of Fed independence.

“We have a long tradition here of conducting policy in a particular way, and that way is independent of all political concerns,” the Fed chief told “Marketplace.” “We do our work in a strictly nonpolitical way, based on detailed analysis. … We don’t take political considerations into account.”

“I’m deeply committed to that approach,” he added. “And so are all of my colleagues here.”

The Fed already faces a delicate balancing act in supporting sustained economic growth without stoking inflation, as the near-record-long expansion continues. Now that the president has openly criticized the Fed, every action it takes might be viewed through the lens of a reaction to him.

“If the decision is to slow [the pace of rate hikes], I would expect Trump to crow and call it a triumph, and that will be devastating for the Fed’s reputation,” said Peter Conti-Brown, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

And if the central bank raises rates again, as it has projected it will do twice more this year, “I fear this will now be set up as the Fed defying Trump,” he added.

But experts suggested Powell’s political savvy might help him navigate headwinds from the White House, particularly by heading off criticism from the more powerful threat to the Fed: Congress, which can do whatever it wants to the central bank through legislation, and public opinion.

He has already got a head start; in a Senate that can agree on few things, Powell — a Republican originally nominated to the Fed board by former President Barack Obama — received 84 “yes” votes for his chairmanship earlier this year.

“Jay Powell’s professional identity has been in politics and in the private sector, and this caused a lot of people to pause on his candidacy to be Fed chair,” Conti-Brown said. “But Powell might have a skill set that is uniquely able to build political coalitions on a front like this.”

In recent decades, presidents have tended to avoid commenting on Fed actions — a policy formalized under former President Bill Clinton — under the assumption that short-term politics cloud the central bank’s ability to act in the long-term interest of the economy.

Strong advocates of Fed independence point to a previous Fed chairman, Arthur Burns, who was pressured by President Richard Nixon in the lead-up to the 1972 presidential election to keep interest rates low. That episode eventually contributed to a rapid rise in prices, requiring one of Burns’ successors, Paul Volcker, to raise interest rates as high as 20 percent to combat inflation.

In a speech in May, Powell seemed to directly refer to this episode to make the case for the firewall between the Fed and politics, in an apparent precautionary message to Trump.

“For a quarter-century, inflation has been low and inflation expectations anchored,” he said. “We must not forget the lessons of the past, when a lack of central bank independence led to episodes of runaway inflation and subsequent economic contractions.”

Beyond repeatedly affirming the Fed’s political independence, Powell has also made a notable shift in how he communicates compared with his academic economist predecessors: speaking in language that the average person could understand, in the hopes that the Fed will seem less mysterious.

“Because monetary policy affects everyone, I want to start with a plain-English summary of how the economy is doing, what my colleagues and I at the Federal Reserve are trying to do, and why,” he said at the start of a news conference in June.

“In particular, we think that gradually returning interest rates to a more normal level as the economy strengthens is the best way the Fed can help sustain an environment in which American households and businesses can thrive,” he added.

Powell also frequently refers to the limits of Fed power, even clarifying: “I don’t think of myself as the guy running the economy. You know the economy is a $20 trillion economy.”

He has also cautiously avoided any direct criticism of the president’s trade policies, though he has warned of the potential consequences if they lead to prolonged economic warfare.

“I’m not an independent agency that has any authority over trade,” he told a lawmaker who asked whether the U.S. is in a trade war.

Luckily for Powell, members of Trump’s own party are generally supportive of the Fed’s rate hike campaign, favoring a return to a more traditional monetary policy. And Democrats, who are more likely to favor slower increases in the hopes that the unemployment rate will continue to drop, have tended to be less openly critical of the Fed.

“Presidents should respect the independence of the Federal Reserve,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a statement Thursday. “I asked Chair Powell under oath at his nomination hearing if he would maintain that independence and he assured the Senate that he would. I take him at his word.”

Market participants and Fed watchers alike downplayed the notion that Powell would be swayed by the president, and St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said he was “not surprised” by Trump’s remarks.

“I’m used to debating monetary policy on a wide basis around the world,” Bullard told reporters on Friday. “I doubt there will be any influence one way or another.”

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Trump threatens tariffs on all $500 billion worth of Chinese imports

President Donald Trump is prepared to take his tariff fight with China to the max — and believes the stock market’s rise since the election gives him the cushion to do it.

Trump told CNBC in an interview that aired early Friday morning that he would be willing to crank up the tariff pressure on China to the point of hitting $500 billion worth of Chinese imports — meaning U.S. import duties would tax nearly all of the $505.5 billion in total goods and services that Beijing exported to the U.S. last year.

“This is the time. You know the expression we’re playing with the bank’s money,” he told CNBC’s Joe Kernen in an interview on “Squawk Box.”

The comments signal growing confidence that Trump thinks a further escalation in a trade war with China won’t cause mass economic destruction as critics have argued.

Pressed about the possibility that such a move could drag down the stock market, Trump said, “If it does, it does.”

“I would have a higher stock market right now, it’s already up almost 40 percent, as you know, since the election,” Trump said. “It could be 80 percent if I didn’t want to do this, but ultimately, what I’m doing is making it so it’s right.“

Trump has made resetting U.S. trade relationships around the globe a priority for his administration, controversially targeting longtime allies and partners like South Korea, Mexico, Canada and the European Union.

But the president has shown a special ire for China, a nation he has accused of unfair trade practices, including intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. Already, Washington and Beijing have both imposed tit-for-tat tariffs, with China’s batch targeting industries like agriculture that are big economic drivers in states Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump in the interview said he is concerned only with the principle of fairness when it comes to America’s trade relationship with China, not with the potential political trouble that a trade war with Beijing could stir ahead of November’s midterm elections.

“Look, I’m not doing this for politics,” he said. “I’m doing this to do the right thing for our country. We’ve been ripped off by China for a long time. And I told that to [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping].”

Trump on Twitter also took shots at China and the European Union, accusing them of lowering the value of their currencies, and criticized the Federal Reserve’s gradual interest rate increases — actions that could undermine the impact of new tariffs.

“China, the European Union and others have been manipulating their currencies and interest rates lower, while the U.S. is raising rates while the dollars gets [sic] stronger and stronger with each passing day — taking away our big competitive edge. As usual, not a level playing field,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

“The United States should not be penalized because we are doing so well. Tightening now hurts all that we have done. The U.S. should be allowed to recapture what was lost due to illegal currency manipulation and BAD Trade Deals. Debt coming due & we are raising rates — Really?”

Trump’s comments echo a long-standing complaint from U.S. manufacturers who argue that China and other countries often artificially depresses the value of their currency to give their companies an export advantage. A lower Chinese renminbi — China’s own currency — relative to a stronger dollar allows Chinese companies to sell their products more cheaply in the United States.

But the dollar lately has been strengthening against essentially all currencies, said Fred Bergsten, senior fellow and director emeritus at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“The fact that the Chinese currency is going down is not unique,” he said. “The question is whether the Chinese officials have done anything deliberate to push it down.”

Beijing has historically bought dollars and sold renminbi to lower the value of its currency. But Bergsten noted that over the last couple of years, China has actually been intervening in currency markets to make sure the renminbi doesn’t drop further.

“What they’ve been doing the last few days or weeks, we don’t really know because they don’t publish their data in real time,” he added.

If China is devaluing its currency to respond to Trump’s tariffs, the implications are significant. Every 1 percent change in the value of the dollar is worth about $30 billion in trade over a year, Bergsten said.

“My thesis has been that they would not want to create that additional front in the trade war … but it is a potential tool they could use,” he said. “The exchange rate numbers are much more powerful than any of these tariffs or trade policy changes, most of which have little if any net effect on the trade balances.”

The People’s Bank of China reportedly weakened its currency by 0.9 percent on Friday, the largest move in two years.

If China is beginning to devalue its currency to counteract the tariffs, the U.S. could respond by buying an offsetting amount of the renminbi. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) at a hearing this week urged Fed Chairman Jerome Powell to look into readying such a response in case Beijing resumes devaluation of the renminbi.

“The currency issues are entirely up to Treasury,” Powell responded. “I don’t know whether they’ve technically consulted with us about it or not. It’s the first I’m hearing about it.”

Critics argue that Trump’s criticism of a strong dollar as the result of rising U.S. interest rates and decreasing foreign currency values could provide cover for other countries to continue to devalue their currencies.

“There’s no reason why the Japanese shouldn’t go and try to weaken the yen, and their cover is: Well, obviously that’s what the Americans are trying to do, we’re just doing it in response to them,” said Tony Fratto, a former assistant Treasury secretary and White House official under President George W. Bush.

Despite Trump’s complaint, the Treasury Department decided in April against formally labeling China a currency manipulator in its latest report on foreign exchange rate practices.

Treasury said China will maintain its spot on the “monitoring list” — along with Germany, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and India — as nations whose currency practices “require close attention.”

Treasury’s decision to not name China a currency manipulator follows the practice of every U.S. administration since the World Trade Organization was created in 1994.

Trump had said he would name China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, but he hasn’t followed through on that threat in any of the three currency reports Treasury has released since he took office.

The Chinese government on Thursday lashed out at remarks earlier this week by White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow that blamed China’s president for failing to reach an agreement with the U.S. to end the trade standoff.

“Right in front of everyone’s eyes, the U.S. went back and forth and ate its own words, and the U.S. official still dared to call white black and tried to shift the blame onto China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a press conference. “That honestly entails some extraordinary imagination and is just preposterously shocking.”

The back-and-forth between the two economic powers has sparked concerns of a looming trade war that could slow down what has been a strong economy under Trump. A slower economy could lead the Fed to hike rates more slowly — or leave them where they are. At worst, prolonged trade tensions could stoke inflation while denting economic growth, further complicating the path for the central bank, which aims to achieve a balance of sustainable economic growth without letting prices run wild.

A trade war could also harm certain American industries in particular. Among the most vulnerable would be the agriculture sector, which relies on exports to China for a significant portion of its annual revenue. Trump has promised that his economic strategy will ultimately benefit farmers, and has asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to come up with a plan to help farmers who are hurt by retaliation. On Friday Trump sought to offer further reassurances.

“Farmers have been on a downward trend for 15 years. The price of soybeans has fallen 50% since 5 years before the Election,” Trump wrote online. “A big reason is bad (terrible) Trade Deals with other countries. They put on massive Tariffs and Barriers. Canada charges 275% on Dairy. Farmers will WIN!”

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Giuliani says Cohen recorded Trump discussing payments to former Playboy model

Michael Cohen, the longtime lawyer of President Donald Trump, secretly recorded a 2016 conversation between the pair about payments to a former Playboy model, Rudy Giuliani confirmed to the New York Times on Friday.

The conversation took place two months before the presidential election, the Times reported. FBI officials, who are investigating Cohen’s role in providing hush payments to women who claim they had affairs with Trump, took the recording into custody during a raid on the lawyer’s office and residence.

Not only was the payment discussed never made, but Trump had no prior knowledge of it, Giuliani said.

“Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance,” Giuliani told the Times. “In the big scheme of things, it’s powerful exculpatory evidence.”

He added that, in the two-minute recording, Trump told Cohen to write a check, so that the payment to the former model would be documented.

The woman, Karen McDougal, has alleged she and Trump had a 10-month affair, beginning in 2006 and ending in 2007.

American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer, reportedly paid her $150,000 for exclusive rights to her story before declining to publish it; McDougal has said the deal was an elaborate effort by Cohen to keep her from going on the record.

In a later conversation with the Times on Friday, Giuliani clarified that Cohen and Trump discussed buying the rights to McDougal’s story from the National Enquirer, which would have served as a form of reimbursement to the media company.

The revelation of the taped conversation is the most recent in a string of developments illustrating the potential legal and political risks that Cohen poses to Trump. Caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation and a separate probe involving his business dealings by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, the former Trump Organization executive has signaled his willingness to cooperate with authorities, telling ABC News in July that he plans to “put family and country first.”

Cohen’s interest in speaking up publicly about his time representing the president continued Friday morning, when the Rev. Al Sharpton posted on Twitter that he’d recently spent an hour with Cohen. “I bet you’re wondering what we could be talking about! Stay tuned,” Sharpton, who hosts a Sunday morning MSNBC show, teased on social media.

Four minutes later, Cohen piggy-backed on Sharpton’s tweet, adding, “I have known Rev for almost 20 years. No one better to talk to!”

Cohen and his attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in a late afternoon tweet Friday, Cohen lawyer Lanny Davis confirmed the tape’s existence. “Obviously, there is an ongoing investigation, and we are sensitive to that. But suffice it to say that when the recording is heard, it will not hurt ⁦@MichaelCohen212⁩. Any attempt at spin can not change what is on the tape,” wrote Davis, a former Bill Clinton White House lawyer who recently signed on to represent Cohen.

Addressing the New York Times’ report, a former federal prosecutor from New York’s southern district said it was “incredibly bizarre” and “certainly unethical” that Cohen taped conversations between himself and his clients. It could ultimately lead to disciplinary action for Cohen, although that threat pales in comparison to the other legal risks he’s facing.

The former prosecutor also dismissed Giuliani’s claim that Trump wouldn’t be in trouble because he talked on the tape about paying McDougal by check rather than cash.

“The fact that something was paid by check is not exculpatory in the slightest,” the former prosecutor said. “The federal prisons are full of people who thought, ‘I paid by check and therefore I’m not doing anything wrong.’ Whenever bad guys pay by check, they always have some false legitimate reason for why they’re paying that way.”

FBI agents raided Cohen’s office, apartment and hotel room in early April in connection with the federal investigation into potential wire fraud and campaign finance violations. The authorities seized more than 12,500 pages of paper records and obtained hundreds more pages of messages and cell phone logs from phones and a Blackberry — communications that remain at the center of a special judicial review to sort through potential attorney-client privilege issues. The FBI’s move also ignited Trump’s ire as he’s taken a more aggressive public stand against the Mueller investigation.

Cohen worked with Trump for a dozen years and was one of the earliest backers of the president’s political ambitions. During Trump’s 2016 campaign, he played the role of prominent adviser and spokesman but also had disagreements with others on the campaign.

Cohen wanted but didn’t get a job in Trump’s White House. Nonetheless, he remained close with the president, attending a White House meeting in May 2017 to discuss strategy on the unfolding Russia probe a day after Mueller’s appointment.

More recently, Cohen reportedly dined with Trump in March at the president’s South Florida Mar-a-Lago retreat and they spoke by phone as their lawyers started working together to try to shield materials seized in the FBI raid. Trump in April said Cohen was still representing him in a personal capacity, though Giuliani a month later said in an interview that the professional relationship had ended. “As far as we know, he’s not,” Giuliani said. “And there’d be nothing for him to do right now.”

Giuliani’s comment Friday represent his latest attempt to downplay the legal ramifications tied to a reported affair involving Trump and to temper concerns about whether Cohen’s potential decision to flip and become a witness in a case involving Trump would even matter.

“I like Michael. I think he’s been very badly treated,” Giuliani told POLITICO last Friday. “We’d like him to tell the truth. We’re confident he doesn’t have anything damaging to tell about the president.”

The former New York mayor already made waves in the Cohen case in May when he stated during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity that Trump had reimbursed the lawyer for a $130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels. That remark contradicted the president’s account of what he knew about the arrangement to keep her silent about an affair she said she had with Trump.

“I’m giving you a fact that you don’t know,” Giuliani told Hannity. “It’s not campaign money. No campaign finance violation. They funneled through a law firm and the president repaid it.”

In a later interview with POLITICO, Giuliani said the reason why Trump paid Daniels rather than report her directly to law enforcement for extortion was “because that’d be extremely embarrassing to him and his family.”

“Those allegations, even when they’re untrue, lots of people believe them,” he said.

Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing Daniels, said in an interview Friday that federal authorities picked up more than just the single tape involving the president and Cohen talking about McDougal. “There are multiple tapes,” he said. “The bottom line is if Michael Cohen wants to be a patriot he should release the tapes. The government is not preventing him from releasing the tapes.”

Giuliani’s comments on the president’s personal affairs have gotten him in trouble before. He drew a rare rebuke from first lady Melania Trump’s office in June after he said during a conference in Israel that “she believes her husband” on the allegations he’d had an affair with Daniels.

Laura Nahmias and Lorraine Woellert contributed to this report.

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Why I’m No Longer a Russiagate Skeptic

When I wrote, back in February, that I was skeptical that President Donald Trump would ever be proved to have secretly colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election in his favor, I mistyped.

What I meant to write was that I wasn’t skeptical.

Last week’s events have nullified my previous skepticism. To recap: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein revealed indictments against 12 Russians for the hacks of the Democratic National Committee, and we learned that Russian hackers went after Hillary Clinton’s private office for the first time on the very day Trump said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” At the NATO summit in Brussels, Trump attacked a close European ally—Germany—and generally questioned the value of the alliance. Next, he visited the United Kingdom and trashed Prime Minister Theresa May. Then, in Helsinki, he met with Vladimir Putin privately for two hours, with no U.S. officials present other than a translator. After this suspicious meeting, he sang the Russian strongman’s praises at a news conference at which he said he viewed Putin’s denials on a par with the unanimous and unchallenged conclusions of America’s intelligence agencies.

With every other world leader, the physically imposing Trump attempts to dominate—witness his alpha-male handshakes with French President Emanuel Macron or his flamboyant man-spreading next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Yet with the diminutive Putin—who is maybe 5 feet, 6 inches tall—he’s oddly submissive. During the public portion of their encounter, Trump was slumping in his chair, as if defeated. Why? Why did he insist on a one-on-one meeting with Putin in the first place?

And why does Trump inevitably return to questioning the irrefutable evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 election? We can dispense with the explanation, conveyed anonymously by senior administration officials, that “his brain can’t process that collusion and cyberattacks are two different things.” We can also forget about the widely held theory that he views the various Russia investigations as a threat to the legitimacy of his election, and therefore a devastating blow to his sense of self-worth.

Or, at least, neither offers a sufficient explanation for why Trump consistently parrots Russian talking points on NATO, the American media, U.S. troop deployments, Ukraine and the legitimacy of the postwar liberal order. What does any of that have to do with his tender ego? Do we really think Trump has an informed position on, say, Montenegro’s history of aggression? Could Trump find Montenegro on a map?

Nor is it credible to point to actions his administration has taken that are “tough on Russia.” Trump has questioned proposals to supply the Ukrainian government with anti-tank missiles and sniped at Congress for wanting to impose fresh sanctions on Moscow.

What about my argument that Trump was constitutionally incapable of keeping a secret? That, too, is no longer operative. Since I first wrote, we’ve learned that Trump—a skinflint who once had his own charity pay a $7 fee to register his son for the Boy Scouts—was willing to shell out $130,000 of his own money to hush up a fling with a porn actress, Stormy Daniels. And he still hasn’t copped to sleeping with her, despite the discovery of their nondisclosure agreement and contemporaneous evidence that the affair really happened. None of this leaked out until well after the election, proving that Trump is indeed capable of keeping his yap shut when he wants. Not convinced? How about the fact that Brett Kavanaugh’s name didn’t leak out as Trump’s latest Supreme Court pick until minutes before the announcement?

Politically speaking, Trump’s devotion to his pro-Putin line doesn’t make sense. Yes, the GOP base is impressionable, and perhaps Republican voters would accept it if Trump came out and said, “You bet, Russia helped get me elected, and wasn’t that a good thing? We couldn’t let Crooked Hillary win!” But nobody would say his odd solicitousness toward the Kremlin leader is a political winner, and it certainly causes an unnecessary amount of friction with Republicans in Congress. He’s kept it up at great political cost to himself, and that suggests either that he is possessed by an anomalous level of conviction on this one issue, despite his extraordinary malleability on everything else—or that he’s beholden to Putin in some way.

You don’t have to buy Jonathan Chait’s sleeper agent theory of Trump to believe that something is deeply weird about all this. Nor do you need to be convinced that Putin is hanging onto a recording of something untoward that may have taken place in a certain Moscow hotel room. You don’t even have to buy the theory that Trump’s business is overly dependent on illicit flows of Russia money, giving Putin leverage. As Julia Ioffe posits, the kompromat could well be the mere fact of the Russian election meddling itself.

As for my argument that Trump’s collection of misfit toys was too incompetent, and too riven by infighting, to collaborate with Russia, this one might still be true. There were certainly sporadic, repeated attempts by some on or around the campaign to collaborate, but we don’t know if, or how, those flirtations were consummated. But certainly, the intent was there, as Donald Trump, Jr. has said publicly. They were all too happy to accept Russian help, even if they weren’t sure they would be enough to win in the end.

We might never get clear evidence that Trump made a secret deal with the Kremlin. It would be great to see his tax returns, and perhaps Mueller has evidence of private collusion that we have yet to see. These details matter. But in a larger sense, everything we need to know about Trump’s strange relationship with Russia is already out in the open. As The Donald himself might say, there’s something going on.

If Trump is indeed a tool of Putin, what might we expect him to do next? Well, I wouldn’t be sleeping too soundly in Kiev, Podgorica or Riga right now. If the Kremlin tests America’s wobbling commitment to NATO, watch how Trump responds. And pay attention, too, to what the White House says about Russia’s absurd demand that the U.S. hand over former ambassador to Moscow Mike McFaul—Wednesday’s spectacle of Sarah Huckabee Sanders refusing to immediately rule out the idea flies in the face of decades of American diplomacy. Trump may have grudgingly admitted that Russia did the deed, but nobody should be surprised if he starts shedding doubt on it all over again. Maybe, just maybe, he can’t admit that Moscow tried to put him in the Oval Office because he’s under strict instructions not to.

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‘I was just doing my job,’ Coats says, defending Russian election meddling findings

ASPEN, Colo.—Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats explained on Thursday he felt obligated to “correct the record” when he issued a statement backing up U.S. intelligence findings that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

“I was just doing my job,” Coats said at the Aspen Security Forum.

Coats issued the statement following President Donald Trump’s joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, where Trump appeared to take Putin’s word that Russia wasn’t involved in election meddling.

“I just felt that at this point in time that what we had assessed and reassessed and reassessed and carefully gone over still stands and that it was important to take that stand on behalf of the Intelligence Community and on behalf of the American people,” Coats said.

Coats said he had a “good relationship” with Trump, but Coats’ comments Monday were nonetheless part of a series of contradictions between the nation’s top spy and the president over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether the Kremlin is still attempting to undermine the U.S. electoral process.

“Obviously, I wished he had made a different statement, but I think that now that has been clarified,” Coats said, referring to Trump in Helsinki.

“I don’t think I want to go any further than that,” Coats added.

Trump appeared to undercut recent statements by Coats on Wednesday when he said the Russian government is no longer trying to interfere in the U.S. political process. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later attempted to walk back the statement, saying that Trump simply said “no” to answering additional questions from reporters and that he hadn’t said Russia wasn’t attempting to undermine U.S. elections.

Top U.S. intelligence agencies have unanimously concluded that Russia interfered in the U.S. elections to aid Trump and damage his Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The president appears to have finally endorsed the findings that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. But that acceptance came after considerable back-and-forth, including Trump’s willingness to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial that the Kremlin had meddled in the election.

After being widely panned for taking Putin’s side over the U.S. intelligence community during a joint press conference in Helsinki, Trump later chalked that up to an incorrect word choice.

Following Trump’s public siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies, Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, issued a statement Monday backing the findings, underscoring the mission of the Intelligence Community “to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president.”

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats said in the statement.

In Aspen, other high profile members of the Trump administration have also reaffirmed the findings on Russian meddling. FBI Director Chris Wray said Wednesday that he still agrees with the assessment and that Russia continues to “sow divisiveness” in the U.S. political system. And Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Thursday that “Russia was absolutely attempting to interfere in our election systems,” but largely avoided discussing whether Trump benefited from Russian actions.

Pressed further on the Helsinki summit, Coats said he would have recommended against Trump meeting one-on-one with Putin and didn’t know what happened during the hours-long Trump-Putin meeting, with only translators present.

“As time goes by — the president has already mentioned some things that happened in that meeting — I think we will learn more. But that is the president’s prerogative,” Coats said. “If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way. But that’s not my role. That’s not my job.”

Asked about another controversial Oval Office meeting in May 2017 between Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, Coats said he had no advance notice.

While he said he didn’t believe there “was any nefarious attempt” behind the meeting, Coats called it “probably not the best thing to do.”

“I was not aware of that. I’m not aware of anything like that since,” he said. “You have to understand you have a president who did not come through the system, came from the outside.”

Pressed by moderator Andrea Mitchell of NBC News on criticism of the intelligence community, including from Trump, Coats largely brushed off questions of whether he has considered resigning.

“That’s a place I don’t really go to publicly,” he said

“I’ve tried to retire twice. … I failed both times,” Coats said, referencing the two stints he served in the Senate.

As Coats concluded his interview, he was informed by Mitchell that Putin was being invited to Washington this fall. And Coats, responded, “Say that again.”

“That’s gonna be special,” Coats remarked, drawing laughter from the audience.

Louis Nelson contributed to this report.

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White House morale tanks amid Helsinki fallout

President Donald Trump’s disastrous performance since his press conference alongside Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin has sent West Wing morale to its lowest level since the Charlottesville fiasco almost a year ago.

As happened last August, when the president refused to condemn neo-Nazi demonstrators, Trump’s attempts to tamp down outrage have backfired. Stilted statements followed by ad-libbed remarks left even his allies feeling that while the president was technically acknowledging a mistake, he actually meant what he’d said on the first go-round – that he believed Putin’s denials of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“People are just depressed,” said one Republican close to the White House. “Nobody wants to take on the public heat of resigning right now but there are a bunch of people who were thinking maybe they’d leave after the midterms who are very seriously starting to consider accelerating their timetable.”

But the president’s usual defenders, many of whom have been critical of him in public and almost all of whom are privately disappointed by his performance, say the following: While Trump’s statements are regrettable, they have few if any policy consequences. And it’s for that reason that senior-level officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton – those with the most impact on policy – are unlikely to step down.

Yet, as Charlottesville triggered public soul-searching by Trump’s Jewish economic policy adviser Gary Cohn, the spectacle in Helsinki has raised questions of how senior officials who accept that Russia is a serious adversary can continue to work for a president who looks the other way on Putin’s attacks.

To Trump’s critics, even among his fellow Republicans, both events represent an abdication of moral leadership, a role to which Trump’s predecessors aspired even if they fell short.

“Moral leadership is critically important for the president,” said Allan Lichtman, presidential historian and the author of the forthcoming book The Embattled Vote in America. “It sets the tone not only for the nation but for the entire world because the president is the leader of the free world.”

Many of the biggest controversies of the Trump presidency have come from such moments of perceived moral equivocation. His speeches have been devoid of references to Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” or even to George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” — phrases that defined their presidencies but also continued a tradition where presidential leadership involved charting a moral course for the country and the world.

Trump has rejected that tradition from the outset, using his inaugural address to describe “American carnage” and repeatedly undermining the idea of America as a beacon for the world. He refused, for example, in a February 2017 interview with former Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s suppression of the free press. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump said. “You think our country’s so innocent?”

Indeed, while a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and independents say it is important for the president to provide moral leadership, according to a Gallup poll released in May, 22 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats say Trump provides somewhat or very weak moral leadership.

“You cannot understate the importance of these moral moments, going back to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural,” Lichtman said. “We are still inspired by Lincoln’s words. Is anyone inspired by anything Donald Trump has ever said, ever?”

Trump’s attempt to rewrite the script on Russia this week has reignited some of those concerns. The president departed from written remarks intended to clarify his comments at the Helsinki press conference with Putin where he gave equal weight to the findings of the American intelligence community that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and to Putin’s denial of that fact.

After acknowledging Russia’s culpability, Trump added, “Could be other people also, there’s a lot of people out there.”

Last summer, days after sparking a media conflagration for condemning people on “both sides” of the rally in Charlottesville, the president emerged at Trump Tower for a press conference ostensibly intended to tout his infrastructure agenda and declared, “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”

Behind him, his newly appointed chief-of-staff, John Kelly, could be seen rubbing his temples with a look of misery that ping-ponged across the Internet. Cohn, then Trump’s chief economic adviser, drafted a resignation letter. But not a single member of the White House staff resigned over it – though Cohn eventually left, amid a fight over tariffs.

Monday’s events have sparked renewed demands for resignations-en-masse from presidential aides.

“Assuming Mike Pompeo and John Bolton still have their own senses intact, they…should resign following the epic disgrace of the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki on Monday. So should their senior staff,” wrote New York Times columnist Bret Stephens on Thursday, noting that he knows and respects both men.

But others have called for those already inside to stay. “Please don’t resign,” wrote Kori Schake, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in the Atlantic. “We should not want the moral satisfaction and practical devastation of clearing out people of conscience and allow the president to replace them with more malleable or compromised people.”

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Trump’s Putin fire rages on

It took the White House nearly 24 hours to publicly reject Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request to interrogate Americans, a proposal that was so roundly reviled that even the U.S. Senate managed to agree unanimously that it was a horrible idea.

The White House’s Thursday statement finally informing the public that, yes, the president opposes forcing U.S. citizens to face Russian investigators capped the fourth day of fallout from Trump’s visit with Putin — a week that was defined by dizzying reversals, government-wide confusion and conflicting statements from the commander-in-chief.

And there were no signs that the furor would die down any time soon.

Senior U.S. officials were still struggling on Thursday to fully understand exactly what unfolded during Trump’s two hour-plus meeting with Putin on Monday in Helsinki, in which the only other people in the room were a pair of translators.

The Russian government appeared to be taking advantage of the secretive meeting, suggesting that Trump and Putin had reached agreements on key issues despite denials from U.S. officials. Bloomberg reported on Thursday that Putin made a proposal during the meeting to hold a referendum to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, a plan that the news outlet said Russian diplomats believe Trump is considering.

The report dropped yet another volatile issue onto the laps of White House aides, who have struggled for days to answer even simple questions about Trump’s stance on Russia.

But the blowback hasn’t deterred Trump.

Now, the White House is facing the prospect of another Putin-Trump meeting — this time in Washington. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted Thursday afternoon that Trump asked national security adviser John Bolton to invite Putin to Washington in the fall, adding, “those discussions are already underway.”

The news appeared to shock Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, who has underscored his assessment that Russia is continuing to target the United States, despite Trump publicly casting doubt on the idea.

“Say that again,” Coats said when informed of the White House’s invitation to Putin during a panel discussion at the Aspen Security Forum. “Did I hear you? Ok…that’s gonna be special.”

Indeed, Trump’s hesitancy to forcefully condemn Putin for meddling in the 2016 election and his continued attacks have disturbed many in the U.S. government and forced high-profile administration officials to distance themselves from the president.

FBI Director Chris Wray, also speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, said Wednesday that Russia “continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.” Wray even suggested that he considered resigning, saying, “I’m a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Coats also hinted that he hasn’t ruled out resigning, saying on Thursday, “As long as I have the ability to seek the truth and speak the truth, I’m on board.”

Others sought to avoid angering the president. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Thursday that Russia undoubtedly interfered in the 2016 election, but declined to say directly that those efforts were aimed at helping elect Trump. “I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” she said during a separate interview at the Aspen Security Forum.

The comments came after Trump and his aides gave conflicting statements about Russia throughout the week.

Trump on Tuesday told reporters that he had intended to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would” at Monday’s bilateral news conference when he said “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that was behind a campaign of 2016 cyberattacks intended to interfere in that year’s U.S. presidential election.

Then on Wednesday, Trump told reporters that Russia was no longer engaged in election interference efforts in the U.S., contradicting Coats, who has said such efforts are ongoing and prompting Sanders to claim Trump was not addressing a reporter’s question when he said “no” during a White House pool spray.

In the latest White House contortion, Sanders on Thursday afternoon issued a statement backing away from Trump’s prior openness to Putin’s proposal to interrogate Americans.

The Russian president, at Monday’s news conference, had suggested that his government would allow special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators question the 12 Russian military intelligence officials it indicted last week if the U.S. would reciprocate by allowing the Russian government to interrogate certain Americans with ties to Bill Browder, an American-born financier who has lobbied heavily against the Russian government.

Trump called the idea an “incredible offer” during the news conference. And on Wednesday, after it became clear that Russia also wanted to question former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, Sanders said that the president would “meet with his team” on Putin’s proposal, setting off a Russia-related backlash against the Trump administration for the third straight day.

By Thursday, as the Senate prepared to formally rebuke Trump, the White House reversed course.

“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” Sanders said in a statement. “Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”

The Senate subsequently voted 98-0 to approve a resolution introduced by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that the U.S. should “refuse to make available any current or former diplomat, civil servant, political appointee, law enforcement official, or member of the Armed Forces of the United States for questioning by the government of Vladimir Putin.”

Trump has been heavily criticized throughout his presidency, and before that his campaign, for what has been perceived as a relatively soft stance towards Russia. Trump has regularly spoken warmly of Putin, a former KGB agent, even as Russia has been accused of attempted assassinations on British soil and continues to occupy the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, fuel ongoing violence in Ukraine, and aid the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Even in its Thursday statement rebuking Putin’s interrogation offer, the administration offered that the much-criticized proposal had been made with “sincerity.”

The reversal also follows fresh expressions of frustration from McFaul, Browder, the larger diplomatic community, and some of Trump’s own allies.

“Most shocking, and just lamentable, I think is my real reaction, when the White House was given the opportunity to categorically reject this moral equivalency between a legitimate indictment with lots of data and evidence to support it from Mr. Mueller with a crazy, cockamamie scheme with no relationship to facts and reality whatsoever, the White House refused to do that,” McFaul told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.

Browder, who lobbied successfully in favor of a 2012 U.S. sanctions package against Russia known as the Magnitsky Act, told CNN that the proposed interrogation swap “is probably one of the most insane things I’ve ever heard coming out of [Trump’s] mouth.”

“What President Trump was saying is that he wants to take a bunch of loyal patriots, people who have given up money for government service to serve their nation, who have been protecting this nation against Russian interference, Russia organized crime, and he wants to hand them over to the Russian criminals,” said Browder, who gave up his U.S. citizenship in 1998. “To hand me over to Putin is basically to hand me over to my death.”

While the White House had publicly said it’s open to the idea of reciprocal interrogations, others, including the president’s own State Department, have cast aside Putin’s suggestion.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview recorded Thursday with the Christian Broadcasting Network, said “that’s not going to happen” when asked about Putin’s proposal.

“The administration is not going to send, force Americans to travel to Russia to be interrogated by Vladimir Putin and his team,” he said.

Thomas Bossert, the president’s former homeland security adviser, said on “Good Morning America” on Thursday that accepting Putin’s suggestion would be “a significant mistake” and “galling.”

In the Senate, GOP lawmakers had also been quick to push the president towards rejecting Putin’s offer.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter that “Under no circumstances should #Putin officials ever be allowed to come into the U.S. & ‘question’ Americans on their list. I don’t believe this will ever be allowed to happen which is why the ⁦@WhiteHouse⁩ should publicly & unequivocally rule it out.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the Russian allegations “jokes” and “absurd” and told CNN “I challenge you to find one member of the House and Senate that believe this is a good idea.”

John Kerry, who served as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter: “The administration needs to make it unequivocally clear that in a million years this wouldn’t be under consideration, period. Full stop,” adding that the proposal is “not something that should require a half second of consultation. Dangerous.”

In Aspen, Coats stated that he had a “good relationship” with Trump, even as he expressed frustration that the president publicly sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies.

“Obviously, I wished he had made a different statement, but I think that now that has been clarified,” Coats said, referring to Trump in Helsinki.

“I don’t think I want to go any further than that,” Coats added.

Connor O’Brien, Eleanor Mueller, Elana Schor and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

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Trump’s intelligence chief on upcoming Putin visit: ‘That’s gonna be special’

President Donald Trump’s intelligence chief mocked the White House invitation to have Russian President Vladimir Putin visit Washington this fall, telling a crowd, “That’s gonna be special.”

NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell appeared to break the news of the forthcoming invite to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday. “Say that again?” he retorted, to laughter from the audience.

When Mitchell started to repeat herself, he stopped her.

“I hear you,” he said, laughing. “That’s gonna be special.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced via Twitter on Thursday that Trump asked his national security adviser, John Bolton, to invite Putin to visit Washington later this year.

Trump himself had teased such a meeting earlier in the day, tweeting that the gathering would give the pair the chance to “start implementing” some of the things they had discussed in Helsinki on Monday.

Coats said on Thursday that he felt the need to “correct the record” on U.S. intelligence, after a week in which Trump spent much of his time walking back various comments on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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Senate fires bipartisan Russia warning at Trump

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a resolution on Thursday stating that the United States should refuse to make any current or former official available for questioning by Vladimir Putin’s government.

The 98-0 vote amounts to a bipartisan slap at President Donald Trump, whose White House on Thursday reversed its previous openness to giving Moscow access to former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and other longtime Putin critics.

But beyond the lopsided vote to pass the symbolic resolution, proposed earlier in the day by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), it remained unclear if the Senate would move ahead on any substantive action in response to President Donald Trump’s widely criticized appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after a meeting with Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that he had asked their two committees to hold hearings on the implementation of last year’s bipartisan Russia sanctions bill “and to recommend to the Senate additional measures that could respond to or deter Russian malign behavior.”

Routing the matter through those committees, however, promises to slow down action on any potential legislation ratcheting up pressure on Moscow after Trump’s friendly overtures to Putin this week. The move also could sap momentum for a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that some of their colleagues worry could unduly impact U.S. and European businesses.

Schumer, for his part, focused on lining up bipartisan opposition to Trump’s consideration of a Putin offer that would allow his government to question McFaul and potentially others, including anti-Kremlin U.S. investor Bill Browder.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that Trump would consider giving Russia access to McFaul and Browder in exchange for U.S. access to Russian nationals indicted for hacking the 2016 election. She later pulled away from the offer, made by Putin after he and Trump met Monday in Helsinki, saying Thursday it “was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it.”

Even after that walkback, Trump’s third straight since his controversial meeting with Putin, senators in both parties consciously pressed ahead with their vote on Schumer’s resolution.

“This is one of those instances where having Congress speak is a good thing,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told reporters. “It’s good that it’s redundant to the decision the president’s already taken, but I think it’s still worthwhile.”

Schumer announced his proposal urging bipartisan cooperation: “This body must agree on the importance of protecting our ambassadors,” he said on the floor. Two senators were absent for the vote: John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

Another symbolic resolution offered Thursday, from Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), would have put the Senate on record supporting U.S. intelligence agencies that have documented Russian efforts to sabotage the 2016 election and hailing the Justice Department for the work that led to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team indicting 12 Russian intelligence officers for cyber-meddling last week.

Trump has repeatedly sought to discredit Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as a “witch hunt.”

The duo sought unanimous consent to pass their proposal on Thursday, but Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) objected for his side of the aisle.

The Flake-Coons measure is “purely a symbolic act,” Cornyn said. “And what we need to do is not just offer symbolic resolutions on the floor; we need to do the hard work” of acting within Senate committees.

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