For Arkansas’ congressional delegation, life was simpler when President Obama was in office. Not better, but simpler. Monday was complicated.
At a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump declined to take sides between his own intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in U.S. elections, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of that interference. In response to press questions, Trump defaulted to his usual defenses: There was no collusion; the election was a great victory; Hillary’s emails. Both leaders said they had discussed the election issue privately with each other that day. Trump said U.S.-Russia relations were at their lowest point ever, and said both countries were at fault. Earlier in the day, he tweeted that the poor relationship was “thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” – referring to the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The reaction was intense across the political spectrum. Democrats, of course, pounced, but even many Republicans were critical. Newt Gingrich, usually a Trump ally, called it “the most serious mistake of his presidency.” Ailing Sen. John McCain said, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
Had Obama done as Trump did, the response would have been simple for Arkansas’ Republican congressional delegation: Accuse Obama of coddling dictators and blaming America on foreign soil as part of his “feckless” policies. They would have said similar things had Obama warmly complimented North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, as Trump did after their meeting in Singapore. Trump’s (not unjustified) criticisms of NATO allies and his ratcheting up of trade disputes have complicated things as well. Prior to Trump, most Republican officeholders were free-traders.
But one of the things that makes politics complicated is the same thing that also makes it simple: There are really only two teams on the field. President Trump was hardly the first choice of Arkansas’ congressmen to be president. But he is a Republican, as are they. The things he makes possible – tax cuts, regulatory relaxations and conservative Supreme Court justices – would not have happened under President Hillary Clinton.
Moreover – and this is really important – Trump is very popular among Arkansas Republican voters, and Helsinki will not change that. In an April poll by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College, 86 percent of Republican primary voters said they approved of Trump’s job performance. In the 1st Congressional District, 96.6 percent approved. The poll’s margin of error was plus-minus 3.8 percent. Therefore, it is statistically possible that the only 1st District Republican primary voters who don’t approve of Trump are those who answered the poll.
Still, this was not something Arkansas’ congressional delegation could ignore. Sen. Tom Cotton, a frequent Obama critic and close Trump ally, released a statement calling Putin an “adversary” and listing his recent wrongdoings. Sen. John Boozman likewise tweeted that “Russia is not our friend.” Both, however, avoided mentioning Trump’s name.
As for Arkansas’ House members, Rep. Rick Crawford, who represents that 1st District where Trump is so popular, told Little Rock’s daily newspaper the Russians had tried to interfere in U.S. elections and said Trump had missed an opportunity to denounce Putin’s misdeeds. Likewise, Rep. French Hill said that “President Trump missed an opportunity today” to assert that Russia interfered with U.S. elections. Rep. Steve Womack said he was “disappointed the President downplayed the very real threat Russia poses to our country and our values.” During a Facebook telephone town hall Monday, Rep. Bruce Westerman said Putin “looks for soft spots, and he pushes as far as he can go in those soft spots.” He said Putin is not America’s friend, but he did not criticize Trump. In Westerman’s 4th District, 91.3 percent of Republican primary voters approved of Trump in that poll.
President Trump often says things that upset some people (and thrill others). Will Helsinki be quickly forgotten? Or will it linger, and embolden those in his party who bite their tongue more often than they would like?
Hard to say. Politics is complicated, even when it might seem simple.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.