WASHINGTON — Louisiana's Republicans in Congress blamed Russia for attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections but largely avoided direct criticism of President Donald Trump for remarks made during a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.
Trump sparked outrage when he cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that the Russian government tried to influence the election and had hacked Trump's opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump on Tuesday offered what he termed a clarification Tuesday in an effort to tamp down on a number of stern rebukes, including one from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a fellow Republican.
Trump has expressed varying degrees of doubt about whether the Russian government attempted to meddle in the election during his time in office, at times expressing an acceptance of U.S. intelligence reports blaming Russia while also suggesting that any number of other actors might've been behind the attempts.
"I strongly disagree with some of the president's remarks," U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, wrote in a Facebook post late Monday afternoon.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., trashed the Putin regime after coming back from meeting with top Russian officials during a July 4 congressional trip to Moscow, likening his interactions with senior Kremlin officials to dealing with "the mafia."
Kennedy didn't respond to an interview request from The Advocate on Tuesday but the senator told WWL-TV in New Orleans that the president "got a little tangled up with his words."
"Russia is not our friend and they're not our ally. There's no question that Russia meddled in our election," Kennedy added in a separate interview with KSLA-TV in Shreveport. "There were some remarks (on Monday in Helsinki) that confused things. The president clarified those in a press conference today."
Several Louisiana Republicans — including Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto; Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson; and Sen. Bill Cassidy — aimed at least some of their criticism at Trump's Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, claiming the former president either didn't do enough to fight off Russian attacks on the election or showed "weakness" in his dealings with Putin.
Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, posted a statement to both Facebook and Twitter praising the president and blasting his critics for clinging to a "bogus collusion narrative" aimed at discrediting Trump.
"President Trump is an expert negotiator who keeps his cards close. I am confident the United States will be as successful in confronting Russian aggression as we have been in negotiations with other foreign leaders," Abraham wrote.
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, backed Trump early Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s time to move on. We have all acknowledged Russia’s efforts to influence our elections. There is no evidence that those attempts had any impact. President Trump won because his message resonated with the American people. ... I’m confident that President Trump has America’s best interest at heart. ... He’s a patriot of the highest order and he always puts America first.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., ripped Putin in a series of tweets Monday afternoon, calling the Russian president "a dictator who murders his political opponents and wants a weak America" and took a dig at Obama.
"Putin attempts to sow chaos in our elections and our society. He's not a Republican and he's not a Democrat, he's a dictator who murders his political opponents and wants a weak America. He also has nuclear weapons, so whether we like it or not, we have to talk to Russia...," Cassidy wrote. "...and work with Russia on some things. It was a mistake for President Obama to give Putin more flexibility and treat him as a non-threat. President Trump should not make the same mistake. In the face of Putin’s aggression, America must be strong."
Spokespeople for Cassidy declined to add to the senator's comments Tuesday.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, ridiculed Russian credibility with a reference to Tommy Flanagan, a decades-old classic recurring Saturday Night Live character played by comedian Jon Lovitz known for his habitual lying.
"Multiple investigations have concluded that Russia did meddle in U.S. elections," Graves wrote on Facebook. "Putin and the Russian government’s integrity and trustworthiness are about as credible as SNL’s Tommy Flanagan — except it’s not funny. I strongly disagree with some of the president’s remarks today and urge him to provide the American people with some additional clarity regarding our relationship with Russia."
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier, has pushed several measures to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity defenses, a spokeswoman noted.
"Russia is not our ally, plain and simple. And while meeting with our adversaries to advance our priorities is in the best interests of the American people, these conversations should reflect the nature of those relationships," Johnson said in a statement on Tuesday. "Putin should never be embraced as a friend of the United States."
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, endorsed a House committee report that concluded Russia interfered in the 2016 elections but didn't address questions from The Advocate about Trump's comments in Helsinki.
“I strongly support the findings of Chairman (Devin) Nunes (R-California) and the House Intelligence Committee, who found that while it is clear Russian interference did not change the outcome of our election, it is also clear that Putin did meddle in our elections under President Obama’s watch," Scalise said in a statement on Tuesday. "I absolutely support the committee’s conclusion, and I support the strong actions taken by our Republican Congress and President Trump to combat Russian aggression ..."
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, the state's lone Democrat in Washington, blasted Trump in an interview with the Times-Picayune for what he saw as a weak performance in Helsinki.
"It's clear (the Russians) attacked the country and the election system, and we have a president up there being apologetic about American actions toward Russia," Richmond told the newspaper. "Putin was sitting up there like an angel and not the thug that he is."