If President Donald Trump sparked a widespread backlash over his news conference beside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland on Monday, one wouldn't have known it from the buoyant tone among Republican Party officials this week.
At the Republican National Committee's summer meeting in Austin, the controversy enshrouding the President was largely shrugged off or rejected -- with party officials instead applauding Trump's foreign policy work, including his public show of deference this week toward Putin and Russia.
"I am in full support of the President," said Demetra DeMonte, a national committeewoman from Illinois, when asked about Trump's stance on Russia. "He has been an incredible President, and I look forward to another two years and a second term."
Nor were Republican Party officials who spoke with CNN bothered by the President publicly questioning the work of his own intelligence officials, who have concluded that Putin had directed Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 US election and to boost Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Instead, some RNC members agreed with the President's suggestion that the intelligence community has sought to undermine him and his presidency, including special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
"To have agencies going after an American President, to create an illusion of collusion that doesn't exist, it looks like they're trying to undermine the President of the United States," said Lori Klein Corbin, a national committeewoman from Arizona. "Not the Russians, but our own people. That is troubling to the American people, and Trump just happens to be brutally honest and he tells it the way he sees it."
"He's not in Putin's pocket," she added.
The President continued to defend his performance in Helsinki on Friday, tweeting: "I got severely criticized by the Fake News Media for being too nice to President Putin. In the Old Days they would call it Diplomacy. If I was loud & vicious, I would have been criticized for being too tough. Remember when they said I was too tough with Chairman Kim? Hypocrites!"
In remarks to RNC members, Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel cheered the President's "historic summit" last month with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as "an unprecedented step toward peace in the region." She also touted Trump's efforts to extract greater defense spending from NATO countries, but she made no mention of his meeting with Putin.
Appearing on Fox News earlier in the week, McDaniel had offered her support for the President's appearance with Putin and his policy toward Russia generally. "The President doesn't underestimate Russia in any way, shape or form," McDaniel said then. "He knows exactly what type of foe they are, but he will continue to work with them on the issues where we do have national security interests combined."
The support for Trump from McDaniel and the RNC's membership jibes with the feelings of Republican voters generally. A CBS News poll this week found that 68% of Republicans approve of Trump's handling of his summit with Putin.
Nevertheless, some Republican lawmakers expressed concern and alarm in light of the President's remarks. Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican who's a former CIA officer and sits on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN's Jake Tapper, "I've seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people in my career, and I never thought the US President would be one of them."
And even some of the President's own administration officials were surprised to learn he is inviting Putin to visit Washington this fall. "OK, that's going to be special," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said when he was informed of the possible visit during an interview Thursday.
The timing of the visit would coincide with the lead-up to Election Day, with the balance of power in Washington at stake. But Republican Party officials in Austin said they trusted the President's judgment in extending the invite.
"I'm sure that the White House and (Trump's) advisers will make sure that America comes first," said Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party. "If they feel like that's the best timing for us, that's fine."
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