Democrats still want Trump-Putin Helsinki notes; Royce pushes back

By – The Washington Times – Thursday, September 13, 2018

The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee sharply criticized an attempt by the committee’s Democrats Thursday to push through a resolution that would have required the Trump administration to hand over “every record” it has on the July summit President Trump had with Russian President Vladimir Putin — an event that rankled administration critics because the two men met in private with only translators present.

While Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce said he personally “disagreed” with Mr. Trump’s handling of the July summit that occurred in Helsinki — asserting that Mr. Trump squandered a chance to publicly challenge Mr. Putin on a range of issues — he stressed that American presidents do “have and need the authority to meet, speak and negotiate privately with foreign leaders.”

The California Republican went on during a committee markup hearing Thursday to suggest Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who introduced the resolution, did so purely for political show with the goal of stirring up anger among Mr. Trump’s critics ahead of the mid-term elections.

The resolution was ultimately quashed by a committee vote that saw lawmakers  split along party lines.

The Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki outraged Democrats and some Republicans in Washington in July, initially because of Mr. Trump’s comments during the event at which he publicly rejected the findings of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

At a joint press conference with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, Mr. Trump declined to publicly rebuke the Russian president for election hacking and also failed to admonish Russia’s annexation of Crimea, poisoning of opponents on British soil and fueling bloodshed in Ukraine and Syria.

The White House said many of the topics were addressed behind closed doors and Mr. Trump subsequently walked back his rejection of the idea that Russia interfered in the election. But frustration still mounted after the summit over the president’s decision to engage in a more than hour-long private meeting with Mr. Putin, with no top aides present.

Administration critics have pounced on the meeting, even claiming it justified the need for special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into whether the Trump presidential campaign had colluded with Kremlin operatives accused of interfering in the the 2016 election.

Thursday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee markup was the latest attempt by Democrats on Capitol Hill to keep the issue in the spotlight.

Senate Democrats made headlines recently by demanding the State Department hand over all internal documents relating to the private Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki — specifically notes Mr. Trump’s interpreter took during the meeting.

Trump administration officials have said the interpreter was the only other American present and dismissed the demand to hand over her notes.

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 24, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, argued the situation requires “urgent congressional oversight.”

“Russian officials,” the senators warned, “have taken advantage of the lack of communication by the White House to circulate their own, possibly false, readouts of what occurred in this private meeting.”

Mr. Royce took a different approach Thursday, asserting during his own committee’s hearing that it’s well within Mr. Trump’s purview to keep the meeting private. The congressman lamented that the proposed resolution “intrudes into judicially recognized areas of executive privilege, and would likely require years of contested — and ultimately fruitless — litigation.”

“This resolution would set a dangerous and harmful precedent with respect to presidential communications,” he said, adding that the only reason it was being allowed a markup hearing was because it was introduced through a loophole, as a “resolution of inquiry” — wording that affords a resolution privilege under House rules.

However, Mr. Royce also stressed that he did not want to be accused of backing Mr. Trump’s handling of the Helsinki summit just because he stands against demands by Democrats for the administration to hand over documents.

“Let me be clear: I strongly disagreed with the president’s remarks in Helsinki,” Mr. Royce said in a statement circulated to reporters on Thursday. “Vladimir Putin is not our friend. And there is simply no comparing the actions of the United States with those of Putin’s Russia. Ultimately, Helsinki was a squandered opportunity to challenge Vladimir Putin’s false narratives on issues including Ukraine, Syria and Russia’s ongoing interference in our democracy.”

“So, I understand the interest in these issues. I’m sure this resolution is a popular idea in some political circles,” Mr. Royce added. “But ultimately, it is not a wise approach to oversight. Indeed, it would only threaten and distract from the bipartisan legislative and investigative efforts of this committee.”

He went on to list a litany of actions the committee has taken recently to “confront Russia’s dangerous actions,” including but not limited to the leveling of “powerful sanctions on Russian hackers and intelligence agencies” and authorizing Mr. Trump to “provide defensive military systems to Ukraine.”

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