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North Dakota, Minnesota delegations denounce Trump's defense of Putin

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. Special to Forum News Service

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump earned wide condemnation from members of Congress on Monday, July 16, after he publicly doubted U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, saying Russian leader Vladimir Putin — who stood by his side — offered an "extremely strong and powerful ... denial today."

Congressional leaders expressed outrage with Trump's performance, which was viewed as a highly public failure to condemn Putin's incursion into the U.S. electoral process. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., called it "disgraceful."

"There is no question that Russia attacked our democracy in 2016 by interfering in the election, as our American intelligence community long ago concluded," Smith said in a prepared statement. "When asked today to choose between our own country's intelligence community and Vladimir Putin — the leader of a hostile foreign power — President Trump refused to choose, and instead blamed our own country. This is a shocking development when I thought I couldn't be shocked any more."

The president's performance came at a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, following a summit between both leaders. Criticism was bipartisan, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., saying that "no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant." Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., raised the possibility that Putin has made Trump a "Russian asset."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has attempted to forge an unusually amicable cross-aisle relationship with Trump as she faces Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., to keep her seat this November. She is among the most Trump-friendly Democrats in the Senate, but also rejected the president’s performance and acknowledged Russian interference in the election.

“Today was a sad and unprecedented day in history — an American president stood with Russia over our own country,” she said in a statement.

Even when critics were more muted, they still rebuffed the equivalence Trump drew between domestic intelligence and Putin's remarks. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., issued a statement that did not name the president but acknowledged Russian interference, calling it "not acceptable." Hoeven, who visited Russia with several other senators earlier this month, also acknowledged Russia's "behavior toward Ukraine and Syria."

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., opted for a similarly measured response, acknowledging Russia's interference — though he qualified that "there is no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential election."

Trump's remarks are likely to make attention on Russia's role in the 2018 elections even more focused — something Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., acknowledged in her own statement.

"It is past time for the president to accept the conclusions of his own administration's intelligence experts and act swiftly to prevent Russia's continued efforts to undermine our elections," she said. "Americans deserve nothing less."

The office of Collin Peterson, D-Minn., did not respond to a request for comment.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108