SALT LAKE CITY — Members of Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election but most didn't criticize President Donald Trump for not pushing back against Russian President Vladimir Putin's denial of any sabotage.
A couple of them had some sharp words for the president, while all six agree the U.S. should hold Russia responsible for its actions. Meantime, other politicos and observers with Utah ties, including several candidates, didn't hold back their condemnation.
"Trump is wrong. Russia meddled in the 2016 elections. Russia is led by a former KGB thug who only understands lies and manipulation," Rep. Chris Stewart said in a statement.
Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said engaging with Russia is a good thing and private conversation with Putin is fine.
"President Trump denying their involvement in the obvious is a mistake," he said, adding Russia must be held accountable for its actions.
Rep. Mia Love said Trump must understand that the world counts on the U.S. to set the tone and hold "thugs" accountable.
"Today he failed to do so," she said in a prepared statement.
After meeting with Trump in Helsinki on Monday, Putin insisted that the “Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in internal American affairs." Trump declined to dispute his assertions, instead saying Putin “has an interesting idea” about the issue of interference, the Washington Post reported.
"There was no collusion,” Trump said at a joint news conference with Putin. “I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign."
Sen. Orrin Hatch said he trusts the work of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement personnel who are sworn to protect the country from foreign and domestic enemies.
“Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Our nation’s top intelligence agencies all agree on that point," he said in a statement. "From the president on down, we must do everything in our power to protect our democracy by securing future elections from foreign influence and interference, regardless of what Vladimir Putin or any other Russian operative says."
Sen. Mike Lee directed his prepared statement at Putin, not Trump.
"We've known for years that the Russians routinely try and influence U.S. elections," he said. "It is unfortunate that President Putin refuses to acknowledge these facts."
BYU political science professor Scott Cooper, an expert in Russian politics, said Russia sees Putin and Trump sitting down together as a huge victory, given the country has been in international exile since invading Ukraine and Crimea.
"The fact then that Putin once again denied any kind of involvement in the election meddling and Trump said he believed him pretty much is just icing on the cake," Cooper said.
The meeting, the professor said, is part of Russia's attempt to build itself back up on the world stage, and Trump is willing to go along with it.
Trump has made a "whole string of bizarrely pro-Russian" comments the past couple of years and Republicans, for the most, have not hammered him over them, Cooper said. Most of Utah's federal delegation doesn't want to pick a fight with Trump about this "because they're afraid of that."
But others with Utah connections, including the daughters of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr., sharply criticized Trump. The former Utah governor is in Finland with the president.
"No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus," Abby Huntsman, Fox News Channel anchor and co-host of "Fox & Friends," tweeted.
Her sister, Liddy Huntsman, posted on Twitter: "Pa·tri·ot·ism (noun) The quality of being patriotic; vigorous support for one's country."
At the joint news conference between Trump and Putin, an Associated Press reporter asked, "Who do you believe," the U.S. intelligence community or Russia? And can you warn Putin to not meddle again?
"All I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, (National Intelligence Director) Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be. ... I have confidence in both parties."
Politico's Playbook Power Briefing wondered, "Will (Coats) stay in the administration? How about U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman?"
"Resign, if you have any honor," John Weaver, Huntsman's chief strategist for his 2012 presidential campaign, tweeted at Huntsman.
Huntsman hasn't commented since the summit, which comes just days after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.
“That now makes probably almost 30 Russians who have been rolled up by the Mueller indictment. That investigation continues,” Huntsman said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." “The bigger picture is we need to hold the Russians accountable for what they did, their malign activity throughout Europe as well. That's a part of the conversation that needs to take place.”
Cooper said Trump's statements after the summit aren't likely to have much of an impact on Huntsman.
"I don't think this puts him in a more awkward position because his job is to keep his head down and talk to the Russians," he said. "I would assume the State Department is badgering Russia about these things, and Huntsman knows that his job is to tell the Russians this is unacceptable."
Chris Karpowitz, associate director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said he has never seen a U.S. president behave the way Trump did Monday. Presidents, regardless of party, have always stood up for American interests, he said.
And Republicans, except for those like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake who is leaving office, have been reticent to push back against Trump, Karpowitz said.
Democratic Senate candidate Jenny Wilson described herself as "speechless and alarmed" in a tweet.
Wilson, who is running against Republican Mitt Romney for Hatch's seat, said Trump's "erratic and unconventional approach" to foreign policy hit an all-time low. She said the president refusing to hold Russia accountable for undermining American democracy is a "disgrace."
"Further, his public and ongoing criticism and dismissal of the FBI all the while excusing the actions of Russia, is unconscionable," Wilson said.
Romney tweeted that Trump's decision to side with Putin over American intelligence is "disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles."
Russia, he said, remains the United States' biggest geopolitical adversary. "Claiming a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia not only defies reason and history, it undermines our national integrity and impairs our global credibility," he said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who is challenging Love in the 4th Congressional District, said he joins Utahns in both political parties in expressing frustration over what happened in Helsinki.
"While we must find a way to live with our enemies, we should never confuse our adversaries with our allies. And we must resist Russian attacks with all the tools at our disposal," he said in a statement.
Flake, a Mormon and BYU graduate, didn't hold back on his condemnation of Trump.
"I never thought I would see the day when our American president would stand on the stage with the Russian president and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful," Flake tweeted.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said he's a proponent of diplomacy and dialog, but he's concerned about Russian aggression toward the U.S. and Europe, including Moscow meddling in elections.
"The administration should proceed with caution in dealing with Putin and should hold Russia accountable for their attacks on democratic societies and institutions," he said in a statement.
Rep. Rob Bishop said he warned both the Obama and Trump administrations to use "extreme caution" when dealing with Putin.80 comments on this story
“Russia is not our friend," he said in a statement. "Russian efforts to undermine American interests in Eastern Europe are undeniable and it’s becoming more and more clear that similar attempts were made here in the United States."
Former independent presidential candidate and BYU grad Evan McMullin tweeted that Trump is "dangerously unfit" for his office and is not a loyal American.
"Trump’s behavior this week has made his betrayal of American interests clear. It has also made clear the betrayal of House Republicans who have relentlessly undermined the FBI and the special counsel as they’ve heroically worked to protect the nation. Time for a change," he said.