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Trump View Of Putin As 'Competitor, Not Enemy' Provokes Ire In Congress

Senator John McCain is one of a number of U.S. lawmakers who have criticized President Donald Trump's comments on Vladimir Putin. (file photo)
Senator John McCain is one of a number of U.S. lawmakers who have criticized President Donald Trump's comments on Vladimir Putin. (file photo)

U.S. President Donald Trump's assertion that Russia is a "competitor," not an "enemy" has provoked alarm and outrage among some prominent lawmakers in Washington.

Several lawmakers said on July 12 that they were concerned about Trump's willingness to overlook alleged wrongdoing by Russia and warned Trump not to go "soft" on Russian President Vladimir Putin at a scheduled summit in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16.

"Putin is not America's friend, nor merely a competitor. Putin is America's enemy -- not because we wish it so, but because he has chosen to be," Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.

"It is up to President Trump to hold Putin accountable for his actions during the meeting in Helsinki," McCain said in a statement. "Failure to do so would be a serious indictment of his stewardship of American leadership in the world."

Trump has touted the summit as an opportunity to reduce tensions, which have been inflamed in recent years by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, its military intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But many U.S. lawmakers want Trump, both privately with Putin and publicly, to condemn Russia's actions.

The U.S. Congress as a whole has taken a hard-line stance against Putin's Russia, nearly unanimously approving last year a tough sanctions law targeting Moscow.

U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg last year.
U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg last year.

Lawmakers worry Trump will fail to take Putin to task, particularly over the election meddling matter, which was a driving force behind the sanctions legislation.

Though Russia denies it, U.S. intelligence agencies and the Senate Intelligence Committee have concluded that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election, and U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 13 Russia organizations and individuals for alleged meddling during the campaign.

Trump has said he would discuss the matter with Putin, but he has repeatedly cited Putin's denials of any interference in tweets that convey his own willingness to take the Russian leader at his word.

"Our goal must be to demonstrate to the world that the community of democratic nations does not intend to accede to Putin's or any other authoritarian's view of the world. We will resist Russia's aggression," Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in an op-ed in USA Today on July 12.

Trump's deference to Russia contrasted with his rocky relationship with top U.S. allies at the NATO summit that wrapped up on July 12 in Brussels. The meeting was marked by sharp exchanges and confrontations between Trump and European leaders over matters from trade to defense spending.

During the contentious NATO meeting, Trump joked at one point that he thought his meeting with Putin would be "the easiest" part of his week-long European trip.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake criticized Trump for saying that.

"The Russian president is a man schooled in treachery and espionage. He jails and murders his opponents, presides over a mafia state, and he is an enemy of democracy. Why would a meeting with Putin be easier than a meeting with the allies that we rely on most to be a bulwark against him?" Flake asked in a speech on the floor of the Senate chamber.

Putin won reelection for six more years in March, with leading opposition figure Aleksei Navalny barred from running on what he said was a false pretext.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Trump's assertion that Russia is a competitor and not an adversary runs contrary to the judgment of his own chief diplomat, Mike Pompeo, who at his April confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State, said the United States needed "to push back in each place we confront them," referring to the Russians.

While Trump said on July 12 that he expects the Helsinki summit to be "just a loose meeting," some at home are hoping it will be a "non-event," producing little of substance on global matters.

"Based on just the way things are shaping up, I think a non-eventful Helsinki meeting might be best for our country," Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, told Reuters.

Days before the NATO summit, Corker sponsored a measure approved nearly unanimously by the Senate that overwhelmingly endorsed NATO as the longstanding cornerstone of Washington's defense strategy.

The measure was intended to send a message to European allies that support in Congress for the military alliance remains rock-solid despite Trump's repeated criticisms.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez praised NATO for helping to bring "peace and prosperity for 73 years" to the United States and Europe, and slammed Trump for jeopardizing those gains at the summit.

"It's so upsetting to see that Putin, whose number one goal is to divide the West, and particularly NATO, has an American president doing his work for him in a way that all of his cyberattacks and Twitter disinformation and trolls have been unable to achieve," Menendez said in an interview with Real Clear Politics.

With reporting by Reuters and Real Clear Politics
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