WASHINGTON — Republican senators said Thursday that President Donald Trump was wrong to blame Congress for deteriorating relations with Russia. Lawmakers instead faulted Russia for allegedly meddling in last year's U.S. elections and for its interventions in other countries.
"I was shocked by that," conservative Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said of Trump's claim. "Because relations with Russia are in a bad place, and it's entirely because of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, it's not because of Congress."
Trump sparked the latest dispute with an early-morning tweet that seemed prompted by a package of sanctions against Russia that he reluctantly signed on Wednesday. "Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!" he wrote.
Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine countered that friction with Russia is because of its actions in Ukraine and Syria and its election interference. "So that's the reason we're at a bad point with Russia, because of Russia's egregious behavior," Collins said.
The pushback was only the latest instance in which GOP lawmakers have readily confronted Trump. His dismal poll numbers and shifting and vague positions on legislative issues give them plenty of leeway to distance themselves from him.
Just last week, Republican defections led to the rejection of three GOP proposals to roll back President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, dealing Trump a defeat on his top legislative priority to date.
Republicans also have defended Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama GOP senator, against Trump criticism and threats of firing him and are mulling bipartisan legislation that would protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from being dismissed by Trump.
"I think that's a misjudging of why we have a bad problem with Russia. We have a bad problem with Russia because of Putin, not the Congress," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"It's completely Putin's fault, ok? That's what I think," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said relations with Russia are bad "because they've done bad things."
One senator, Richard Shelby of Alabama, dated the two nation's eroded relationship to pre-Putin days.
"I think that started in 1917, didn't it?" said Shelby, referring to the Russian Revolution, which led to Communist rule. "It's ebbed and flowed since, but I don't see how it's Congress' fault."