WASHINGTON – Arizona lawmakers agreed that President Donald Trump was wrong to claim Monday that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election, although their reactions to the since-withdrawn statement ranged from condemnation to rationalization.
Trump sparked immediate backlash Monday after appearing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and saying he saw no reason why Russia would have interfered in the election, noting Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful denial” of any involvement.
The joint news conference in Finland followed a summit between the two men that came just days after the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russians for hacking in connection with the election.
Back at the White House Tuesday, Trump backtracked, saying he meant to say he did not see any reason why it “wouldn’t” have been Russia behind the alleged election hacking. “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” he said in brief remarks before a meeting.
But that did little to quiet critics from both sides of the aisle, who characterized his Monday remarks as everything from “nothing short of treason” to a failure to recognize the “seriousness of the nature of Russia meddling in our elections.”
Some of the swiftest and harshest criticism came from Arizona’s two Republican senators. Sen. Jeff Flake said in a tweet that Trump’s remarks were “shameful,” while Sen. John McCain called the news conference with Putin “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” McCain said in a statement released by his office. “But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”
Democrats were just as quick to criticize the president, and to accuse him of failing to support U.S. intelligence agencies.
“Americans should have seen their President condemn President Putin,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, in a statement released shortly after the Monday meeting. “Americans should have been represented by a cool-headed, tough, moral public servant at this meeting. I regret very much that they were not.”
Other Arizona Republicans had little to say Monday, a fact noted by the Arizona Democratic Party, which called the silence “deafening” at a time when “our national security is in peril.”
But Rep. Martha McSally, R-Tucson, did question the president’s words Monday, even as she praised his decision to meet with Putin.
“President Trump has worked with Congress to impose stiff sanctions, expelled Russian diplomats, and led an effort with our NATO partners to strengthen our defenses against Russian aggression,” McSally said in a statement Monday evening. “We need to continue to deal with Russia from a position of strength. However, I do wish the President’s words on Putin today were as strong as his actions.”
Reached at a “Conversations with Conservatives” event Tuesday morning, before Trump issued his correction, Republican Reps. Andy Biggs of Gilbert and Debbie Lesko of Peoria focused on the president’s attempt to find “commonalities” with Russia, even if they were dismayed by his statements after the summit.
“If you’ve got the two biggest nuclear superpowers in the world, if you can get the leaders of those nations talking, it’s a far better bet than if they’re throwing haymakers at each other,” Biggs said.
Biggs called the issue a “tempest in a teapot,” noting that during the meeting with Putin, Trump “pressed rather vigorously on Russia’s participation in trying to influence our electoral outcome.”
Lesko said her constituents support building a relationship with Russia, but that she also supports “the intelligence community and the House intelligence community committee that said that Russia meddled in our elections and we cannot allow that to happen.”
“I think it’s good on one hand that the president is reaching out to other countries and trying to build a relationship, including Russia, but it’s also important that we realize the seriousness of the nature of Russia meddling in our elections,” she said.
But Democrats called Trump’s comments “a slap in the face” to the military and the intelligence community.
“There should be no scenario where the President of the United States, regardless of political party, stands up on the international stage and denounces the work of our nation’s intelligence community while praising a foreign leader who has so blatantly ordered an attack on our very democracy,” Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, said Monday.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said she was “highly disturbed” that Trump’s remarks supported “Putin’s baseless, false claims of innocence.”
“Russia is an authoritarian regime that has attacked our democracy and continues to undermine the security of the United States and our allies,” Sinema’s statement said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said people will not be swayed by Trump’s reversal Tuesday.
“The world watched Trump side with Russia over U.S. Intelligence agencies on live television,” Grijalva said in a tweet. “Make no mistake, no amount of spin will change the transcript of this shameful spectacle.”