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National GOP reluctant to weigh in on Trump’s Russia swirl

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — There was no sign of shock or outrage in the hotel hallways and conference rooms where Republican officials gathered to discuss party business even as politicians on both sides and foreign policy experts fretted about President Donald Trump’s cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The men and women from all 50 states who run the Republican National Committee did their best to avoid the topic of post-Helsinki summit angst during their summer meeting, which ended late Friday. When pressed in interviews, they defended Trump’s conduct or begged ignorance, citing what some claimed as a complicated policy matter.

“You know what I know about foreign policy? Once a month I eat at the International House of Pancakes. That’s my foreign policy experience,” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime RNC committeeman from Massachusetts and former political director for President George H.W. Bush.

“People wanted change. He’s changing,” Kaufman said of Trump. “The foreign policy experts may not like it. I’m not qualified to say whether it’s right or wrong.”

It was a different story last summer when the RNC formally condemned Nazis and the KKK after Trump’s muddled response to violent protests by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump said in his initial response to that incident said there were “some very fine people on both sides.”

After Monday’s summit with Putin, Trump said he had “confidence in both parties” when asked whether he trusted the Russian president or U.S. intelligence agencies. Trump later attempted to walk back the statement. By week’s end, Trump had invited Putin to the White House for their next meeting.

That didn’t sit well with at least one prominent former RNC member.

On the eve of the meeting, Jennifer Horn, a onetime New Hampshire GOP chairwoman who previously served on the RNC’s executive committee, called on the RNC to support a formal resolution, as it did after Charlottesville, to clarify the party’s position on Putin and Russia’s continued efforts to meddle in U.S. elections.

In an open letter to the RNC, Horn said Trump repeatedly denigrated Republican values “in spectacular fashion” in Helsinki. “Unfortunately, it has become impossible to defend both the president and Republicanism at the same time,” she said, adding: “I’m afraid that if our leaders can’t find that courage today, we will lose our party forever.”

Horn’s plea was ignored.

Even New Hampshire’s new GOP chairman, Wayne McDonald, took a swipe at Horn for attacking Trump on Russia.

“The president is doing wonderful things for the Republican National Committee,” MacDonald said. “And to come out against him, as I believe she has recommended, would be totally inappropriate and totally wrong and I couldn’t disagree more.”

Bill Palatucci, the New Jersey committeeman who authored the Charlottesville resolution, said the vast majority of his colleagues felt this current situation was different.

“People remain very supportive of the president and take him at his word. He says he misspoke when he was standing there with President Putin,” Palatucci said. “I’ll give that benefit of the doubt.”

GOP officials from across the country said they were willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, believing that he probably was much firmer with Putin in private than he was in his public performance.

Arizona committeeman Bruce Ash echoed Trump’s efforts to play down Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, suggesting that America hasn’t always behaved properly, either.

“Look, we’ve been doing it in other peoples’ elections,” Ash said, contending that President Barack Obama tried to interfere in Israel’s 2015 elections. “There’s nothing new.”

Other GOP officials struggled to reconcile their aggressive Charlottesville response and their silence on Putin, but had little appetite for condemning the Republican president.

“I am as opposed to Russians interfering in our elections as I am to racists trying to divide our country. They’re both immoral. They’re both wrong,” said Mississippi national committeeman Henry Barbour. “I don’t want to get into whether or not we should or shouldn’t put out a resolution.”

Trump’s hand-picked RNC chairwoman, Ronna Romney McDaniel, suggested in an interview that the debates over Charlottesville and Russia have little in common.

Asked about the president’s performance in Helsinki, she said: “It’s important not to cherry-pick one moment.” She highlighted economic sanctions put in place by the Trump administration that have hurt both the Russian economy and Putin’s approval ratings.

“I don’t think he’s cozying up,” McDaniel said of Trump’s relationship to Putin. She added: “I think in the totality, the president, in terms of his policy, has been incredibly hard on Russia.”

The RNC didn’t feel it necessary to adopt a formal resolution on Russia, however. Members instead approved language addressing so-called sanctuary cities, the Supreme Court, sex education and religious persecution in Burma.

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