Senators have criticized Trump. Now what?

Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki. Photo: White House.

Alaska’s U.S. senators are among the Republicans who’ve criticized President Trump for not standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland on Monday. Or at least expressed disagreement. But beyond strongly worded statements and tweets, is there more Congress should do to show Trump they disapprove?

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It began Monday in Helsinki. With the whole world watching, Trump seemed to side with Putin over American intelligence agencies on their conclusion that Russia interfered with the election that put him in office.

“I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said at a press conference with Putin at his side. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Twenty-four hours later, Trump walked it back. In a way. He said he meant to say he didn’t see any reason why it “wouldn’t” be Russia.

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said in his reversal Tuesday. And then he undercut his own walk-back: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski was still critical of the president Tuesday afternoon.

“This has been more than unfortunate. It’s been a debacle,” Murkowski said of the Helsinki episode. “So the fact that he is kind of retracing his steps is important. But he sure stepped in it yesterday (Monday).”

Political scientist Molly Reynolds at the Brookings Institution says lawmakers can deploy more than words.

“If Congress is serious about trying to send a message to Trump they don’t approve of what he’s been doing, they have a range of options available to them,” Reynolds said. “It’s a question of whether or not they want to use them.”

Among other things, Reynolds says they could pass a bill that protects Robert Mueller’s investigation into election interference. (On Monday, Trump blamed that investigation for driving a wedge between the U.S. and Russia and called it a “rigged witch hunt.”)

Another option, Reynolds says, is senators could withhold their votes for the president’s priorities, such as his Supreme Court nominee.

Murkowski says she’s looked at a few legislative options, and is reconsidering a bill that would protect the Mueller investigation. When the proposal first surfaced months ago, Murkowski wasn’t enthusiastic.

“I just didn’t think it was going to be necessary,” Murkowski said Tuesday. “After yesterday, I just don’t know now.”

Murkowski rejects the idea of sending a message to the president by refusing to confirm his nominees. She says when Congress refuses to act, on nominations or bills, it shifts power to the executive branch.

“So if anything, I think it calls for greater congressional action and not a complete blockade,” Murkowski said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan says he hasn’t heard any concrete proposals for bills to condemn the president for what he said in Helsinki.

“You know there’s some discussion on it. I don’t know what that would be,” Sullivan said.

Asked about Congressional action to send a message to the president, Sullivan responded with ways to send a message to Putin.

“The best way to push back on the Putin regime … is to continue what we’ve been doing which is building up our military defenses,” Sullivan, who sits on the Senate Armed Service Committee, said. (He also said he’s been telling the president and his team for months that it’s important to maintain and build strategic alliances.)

Sullivan said he doesn’t see the need to pass a bill to protect the Mueller probe because he’s not hearing suggestions that Mueller might be fired.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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