As President Donald Trump found himself under pressure from his own party this past week, Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania reached for his shield.
Barletta, who is running for Senate with the expectation of substantial support from Trump, hails from a northeastern Pennsylvania congressional district that strongly backed Trump in 2016. He was one of Trump’s earliest backers in Congress in the presidential primary, co-chaired Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania and served on Trump’s transition team.
While some prominent Republicans in Congress this week pushed back on Trump or criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, not Barletta.
Barletta attacked Democrats — who had criticized Trump’s suggestion at the Helsinki summit that he believes Putin’s denial of interfering in the 2016 elections — and, echoing the White House, Barletta stressed the potential for U.S.-Russia cooperation in world affairs.
“People have lost focus of the good that has come out of that meeting. The question is: ‘Is the world better off that they met or not?'” Barletta told The Philadelphia Inquirer while in Washington on Tuesday. “The Democrats want to try to find that one drop of blood in the water so that they can focus on Russia, their favorite subject.”
Monday’s firestorm erupted when Trump, standing side-by-side with Putin in Helsinki, refused to say he believed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, or to publicly condemn it. Instead, he directed his ire at Democrats and U.S. officials, calling special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference a “disaster” and a “witch hunt.”
Trump backpedaled in the following days, saying he accepted the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to interfere in the election and that he held Putin responsible.
For his part, Barletta said in a statement released by his campaign that he, too, agrees with U.S. intelligence agencies, and that he will “continue to do everything I can” to prevent Russia from doing so again.
Still, Barletta avoided criticizing Trump or, for that matter, Putin, the man who Trump is inviting to the White House this fall.
The man he is trying to unseat in November’s election, two-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, blasted Trump’s conduct in Helsinki as “dangerous and reckless.” Trump, Casey said, “attacked and diminished our law enforcement officers and intelligence agencies on foreign soil in front of a hostile dictator and on matters directly relating to an attack on our nation.”
A man Barletta hopes to join in the Senate, two-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, did not shy away from criticizing Trump’s comments in Helsinki.
“I thought it was a very disturbing performance with Vladimir Putin,” Toomey said on a telephone town-hall he held with Pennsylvania residents Wednesday. “I don’t understand the apparent blindness (Trump) has to Putin’s hostile acts.”
Toomey also aggressively attacked Putin, calling him a “bad actor” who should be treated as an international pariah.
Barletta also sounded different than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said “the European countries are our friends, and the Russians are not” following a trip in which Trump also harshly criticized traditional allies at a NATO summit over what Trump called “delinquent” defense spending.
Asked whether he agreed with that statement, Barletta’s campaign said “Russia is clearly an adversary of the United States.”
But, Barletta’s campaign said, “our adversarial relationship should not derail efforts to find common ground through diplomacy on important issues like stabilizing Syria and denuclearization — just like our stalwart alliances with European nations should not handcuff United States policy from requesting trade fairness and full NATO payments.”
Criticizing Trump is, perhaps, something Barletta will never do: Barletta makes no bones about his hope that the coalition that propelled Trump to a win of less than 1 percentage point in Pennsylvania over Democrat Hillary Clinton will deliver a victory for him in November.
Barletta also has said he expects Trump will campaign for him in Pennsylvania and marshal “a lot” of money from donors to help him. Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, is headlining a fundraiser for Barletta in Philadelphia on Monday.
Asked whether Barletta thinks Trump went too soft on Putin or whether Barletta agrees with Trump that Mueller’s probe of Russian interference is a “witch hunt,” Barletta’s campaign didn’t answer.
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.