Republican Voters Buoy Trump on Russia/Putin

Republican Voters Buoy Trump on Russia/Putin
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Republican Voters Buoy Trump on Russia/Putin
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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As President Trump continues to stumble past his press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week, Republican voters are handing him a lifeline.

Though many GOP lawmakers have been critical of the president's statements in Helsinki, party voters are registering their support for Trump's handling of Putin. According to a CBS News poll released Thursday, 68 percent of Republicans approved of the president's performance, even as 55 percent of voters overall, including 53 percent of independents, disapproved. And a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday found that 71 percent of Republicans approved of Trump's handling of Russia even as more than half of all voters disapproved.

Trump's approach to Putin has administered a stress test to Republicans on Capitol Hill, most of whom defend party orthodoxy in declaring Putin a foe determined to undermine democracy. But Trump's popularity among base voters, especially ahead of critical midterm elections in November, creates a high-wire balancing act for these lawmakers.

Many have voiced their frustrations with Trump undermining the U.S. intelligence community, and have voted previously to apply sanctions on Russia, provide arms to Ukraine, and pass an overwhelmingly bipartisan resolution reaffirming support for NATO. And on Thursday, the Senate voted 98-0 to oppose Putin's proposal to question American officials in reciprocity for Robert Mueller’s investigation of indicted Russian nationals — a proposal which, until shortly before the vote, the White House was still considering.  "We understand the Russian threat, and I think that is a widespread view here in the U.S. Senate among members of both parties," Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

But Republicans also appear eager to move on from the controversy. After the president read a "clarification" of his Helsinki remarks on election tampering —“The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t or why it wouldn’t be Russia," he said on Tuesday — many GOP lawmakers appeared satisfied. "I'm just glad he clarified his comments today. I can't read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced legislation with Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen that would put additional sanctions on Russia if it interferes in future elections. "It’s probably the best we’re going to get, right?" Senate GOP Conference Chair John Thune told reporters.

"Of course, I wish he said it in front of President Putin and the world yesterday, but yeah, I take him at his word if he says he misspoke, absolutely," Ohio Sen. Rob Portman told Fox News, adding that the president needed to decouple election interference with the legitimacy of his presidency. "But the point is we need to be as one here, pushing back.”

When Trump responded "no" Wednesday after being asked by a reporter during a photo op whether Russia was still meddling in elections, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham swiftly expressed concern about the president not being on the same page as  Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who has been raising alarms about ongoing threats. But when the White House again "clarified" that Trump was simply saying he wouldn’t respond to further shouted questions, Graham took the president at his word. "I’m very pleased to hear this and I stand ready to work with the administration to harden our electoral system against all foreign interference, including Russia," he said.

And at a monthly gathering of conservative House members on Tuesday, many rose to the president's defense. “Given the unfriendliness of the press toward the president, why should we focus on a press conference?” said Maryland Rep. Andy Harris. 

In addition, when GOP Sen. Jeff Flake and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons asked for a vote on a non-binding resolution Thursday to support the U.S. intelligence community's assessment regarding Russia interference in the election, Republican Whip John Cornyn objected on the grounds that it was purely symbolic. Instead, he said it should go through regular order, with hearings and witnesses.

While 70 percent of Americans believe the U.S. intelligence conclusions, according to the CBS poll, only 51 percent of Republicans say the same. And 42 percent of Republicans say they don't believe the conclusions, a percentage that mirrors the president's overall job approval rating. According to the survey, 67 percent of independents and 89 percent of Democrats believe U.S. intelligence.  And while 61 percent of voters, including 57 percent of independents, said they are concerned about Russian interference in the 2018 elections, 61 percent of Republicans said they aren't concerned.

The Reuters/Ipsos survey found that while 59 percent of voters agree with the intelligence agencies' conclusions, only 32 percent of Republicans share that view, compared to 84 percent of Democrats.

The numbers signal ways in which the base of the party is supportive of Trump. And despite the bipartisan objections among lawmakers to his statements in Helsinki, Trump has blamed news coverage. "The Fake News Media wants so badly to see a major confrontation with Russia, even a confrontation that could lead to war. They are pushing so recklessly hard and hate the fact that I’ll probably have a good relationship with Putin. We are doing MUCH better than any other country!" He tweeted.

Like most controversies that have dogged the administration, it is difficult to tell whether this one will have legs through the midterms, given the fast pace of the news cycle and short attention span of the public. Some Republican strategists say that the intense media scrutiny and Democratic attacks could further endear Republican voters to the president.

"It feels to me like every time the Trump administration gets into an issue where everybody says, 'Oh, gosh, this is going to hurt,' the Democrats immediately shift into hysterical overdrive and mitigate what the damage could have been," said Kentucky-based Republican strategist Scott Jennings, noting that the border crisis has morphed into a largely derided discussion about abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"I thought it was a misstep and the attempt to clean it up was not well-handled," Jennings said of the Helsinki controversy. "But if you're a regular old rank-and-file Republican out in Middle America and you're watching all of this on television ... there's two sides: There's the president and then there's the [hysteria]. Who are you going to side with if you're a Republican?"

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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