President Donald Trump is firmly standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though his tweets and fawning performance at a joint news conference create the opposite impression, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Thursday.
“When you look at this administration’s actions, they have been clearly willing to confront Vladimir Putin,” Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a speech to the Sutherland Institute and during follow-up questions.
That’s why Trump’s tweets and news conference performance are “so frustrating to me because it clouded that reality, and fell into this image that he prefers a strongman like Vladimir Putin, who we know is a KGB thug,” he said.
Trump “makes my job harder with some of his tweets.” Stewart added Trump was wrong when he sided more with Putin than the U.S. intelligence community about Russian interference in elections and wishes his corrections were more forceful.
But Stewart listed several reasons why he still sees Trump as tougher on Russia than was former President Barack Obama.
“Here is a president who went to NATO and said, ‘You have to increase your spending on defense,’ and the point of that, of course, is Russia. Who is the president who said to the United States, we are going to increase our spending on defense…? And one of the points of that is to counter Russian aggression,” he said.
“Who is the president who said we are going to drive down the cost of energy and make the United States the most efficient oil exporter in the world…? If you want to put an economic sanction on Russia, that’s the most powerful thing we could do because they are so dependent on the price of energy … for their foreign currency.”
Stewart added, “Who is the president who said we are going to back up our allies in the Ukraine when the previous administration” would not sell it weapons. “This president said, ‘We will give you the tools to defend yourself.’”
Stewart said he expects more Russian attempts to interfere with U.S. elections, saying that weakening trust in the United States here and abroad is part of Putin’s strategy to expand Moscow’s influence.
“Russia is going to continue to do this," he said. “They have done it in Europe, they’ll do it in 2018 here, they’ll do it in 2020.”
In 2016, after Stewart was treated poorly during a visit to Russia, he predicted on his return that Russia would attempt to interfere with U.S. elections later that year — possibly by cyberattack.
Of course, Russia did interfere, but “we don’t have any evidence at all that they were able to penetrate any voting machines," he said. “Not a single vote was changed, so far as we can tell.”
Stewart said when he made his predictions, he was asked about whom he thought Russia wanted to win the election.
“I said, ‘I don’t think they care. They just want to break down the foundations of democracy, break down trust in our electoral process. They want us to distrust and defeat each other.’ And if that was their goal, and I believe that it was, I believe they have been very effective,” he said.
Stewart has stuck with that view — that the Russian attacks weren’t aimed at helping one candidate — despite the U.S. intelligence agencies all concluding that the aim was boosting Trump’s candidacy. Putin even seemed to acknowledge as much at the news conference following the closed-door summit in Helsinki.
Stewart on Thursday said election interference led to improving firewalls around election systems. “That was the easy part,” but he said the tougher part is recognizing efforts in social media to create division.
“Facebook has billions of ads and posts, and millions are added every day. How do you monitor those?” he said. “At the end of the day, what we have to rely on is the intelligence and goodwill of the people to be able to self-filter, and for them to be able to see, hopefully, that some of these things are intended to be divisive.”
Stewart also said that America’s adversaries, including Russia and China, will never be able to defeat America directly. “All they can do is assist us if we decide to commit suicide.”
Democrat Shireen Ghorbani — Stewart’s challenger in the 2nd Congressional District, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet republic of Moldova — criticized his comments.
“To suggest that the Russians interfered to break down our democracy without wanting to pick winners and losers is false. Our president was standing next to Putin in Helsinki when he was asked ‘Did you want President Trump to win and did your officials help.’ The answer was clear as day, Putin responded, ‘Yes, I did. Yes, I did.’”
She added, “As we see our relationships with NATO strained, North Korea continuing to build missiles, and the ripping up of the Iran nuclear deal putting us on a crash course to a more nuclear and more volatile Middle East, I’m frankly surprised that the representative wants to claim that we are strong on security in any way at this point.”