President Trump took steps on Wednesday to allay Republicans’ anxieties ahead of the midterm elections, postponing a possible second meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin until next year and agreeing to a cease-fire in a trade war with the European Union that is hurting American farmers.
Both moves came after the president met with Congress’ Republican leaders, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to discuss an annual funding bill to avert a government shutdown a month before the election. But the leaders also used the White House meeting to express concerns about the political impact of Trump’s approach to Russia and tariffs, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.
“They’re trying not to [mess] up the election,” said one source close to the two leaders.
Following the White House announcement delaying a Putin visit, which Trump initially proposed for the fall, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo continued his efforts to answer bipartisan complaints about the president’s conduct during his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, last week. Pompeo issued a statement affirming the U.S. position rejecting Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea — Trump had hinted at acquiescing — before heading to Capitol Hill to take questions from lawmakers.
At the outset of a sometimes testy hearing, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), didn’t conceal his disdain, warning Pompeo that he was testifying before senators “who are filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy.”
Corker said he hoped that Pompeo could “convince us that those at the White House know what they are doing.”
For politically vulnerable Republicans hoping to remain in elected office come 2019, the days leading up to the Nov. 6 election will be largely about convincing their voters of that. Party leaders have grown increasingly worried that the president is fanning the political headwinds they’re already facing.
Polls have shown a bump in voters’ preference for Democrats following the Helsinki summit, at which Trump accepted Putin’s denial of Russia’s 2016 election interference over the findings of the U.S. intelligence agencies. Most Americans say they disapprove of his performance there.
A Quinnipiac University poll taken after the summit and released Wednesday showed Democrats with a 12-point advantage on the question of which party’s candidate they would support for Congress.
Further, Trump’s protectionist trade stance, which has resonance with many of his supporters, may be a political loser with the broader electorate. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week, by a 2-to-1 margin, voters oppose Trump’s turn toward tariffs, believing they “raise the cost of goods and hurt the economy.”
Polls also show opposition to his proposed wall on the southern border, an issue that could threaten a shutdown if his demands for billions of dollars prevent agreement on a government-funding measure for the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Most worrisome to Republicans currently are Trump’s threats of new tariffs on trading partners, which could invite more retaliatory tariffs, hurting American producers and undercutting the party’s economic message.
“For Republicans, the midterms have to be about the economy. If it’s about tariffs, Russia or anything else, it’s hugely problematic,” said Alex Conant, a party strategist.
“Our message needs to be: People have more money in their pocket today because of Republican leadership in Washington, and Democratic control would jeopardize economic security. To the extent that tariffs weaken the economy and undermine that message, they’re a political disaster.”
McConnell described his and Ryan’s conversation with the president as “routine,” and went out of his way to say that Trump was interested in the status of the Senate’s process for confirming his Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh. McConnell told the president it’s “going along nicely.”
According to a Republican lobbyist close to the majority leader, McConnell “wants everybody to focus on Kavanagh and accomplishments.”
“And Trump isn’t stupid,” said the lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He doesn’t want to deal with a Democratic House or Senate, or both, for two years before reelection.”
Just hours after the leaders’ meeting, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, issued a statement that a Putin visit would not occur before next year — after the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference, possible Trump campaign involvement and whether the president sought to obstruct the probe.
“The president believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after the first of the year,” said Bolton, who, before he joined the administration, last year called Russia’s election interference “an act of war.”
Putin had yet to respond to the president’s invitation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) acknowledged that he is “a little bit relieved that it’s not right before the election.” He defended Trump’s prerogative to continue talks with Putin, however, saying: “It’s OK to talk with your enemies.”
Republicans also felt a little relief late in the day, when Trump stood beside the visiting European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in the Rose Garden for an unplanned news conference and declared “a new phase in the relationship” between the United States and the European Union. They announced an agreement to avoid punishing tariffs while the two sides work toward a larger trade deal.
“We’re starting the negotiation right now, but we know where it’s going,” Trump said. He outlined the E.U.’s commitment to import more U.S. soybeans and liquified natural gas in return for the president’s agreement to reconsider his steel and aluminum tariffs and hold off on new ones.
Before heading to the White House with other Republican lawmakers for the Rose Garden announcement, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas said that the president’s tariff threats had “made things very unpredictable.”
Trump, after his meetings with Juncker, also met at the White House with other Republican members of Congress, who relayed their farmers’ complaints that his tariffs were adversely affecting their prices and foreign market access. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington state said he told Trump: “There’s a lot of angst in farm country.”
Congressional Republicans were not mollified on Tuesday, and in some cases opposed, the administration’s proposal for $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by retaliatory tariffs.
“It’s one thing to provide aid,” Boozman said. “What we want is, again, predictability. Farmers have worked very hard to get the markets that they have and we want to protect those for the future.”
The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) opposed the package as “a bailout” in a television interview Wednesday.
“Every single bailout ultimately is going to be borne by our children and our grandchildren,” Hensarling said, adding: “The answer is trade, not aid.”
In recognition of those concerns, the White House arranged for Trump’s chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, and trade advisor Peter Navarro to meet with all House Republicans on Thursday morning.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Sarah D. Wire and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.