European lawmakers visiting Washington on Monday were enraged and disheartened by President Donald Trump’s performance in Helsinki alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin—but then quickly disregarded the president’s words.
That’s because the lawmakers—who hail from western and eastern European countries that have been victims themselves of Russian aggression—are becoming accustomed to flat-out ignoring the American president’s statements amid reassurances from the U.S. Congress, in addition to the State Department and Pentagon officials under him.
“I grew up in the U.S. I’ve seen every president since Eisenhower. I’ve never seen this kind of a disbalance between the president and the other branches of power,” Amb. Ojārs Kalniņš, a member of Latvia’s parliament, said in an interview on the sidelines of a press conference at the Atlantic Council.
Kalniņš, who was joined by lawmakers from other European nations, said he and his counterparts are continuing to ignore Trump’s posture toward strongmen like Putin. The lawmakers, who appeared alongside Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, took solace in the idea that there remains a strong apparatus of support within the U.S. government for the Baltic states and European allies which keeps the president in check.
“I get the impression that a lot of what he says is just for his voters, the media attention,” Kalniņš added. “But eventually when things calm down it turns out that nothing much has changed. We see the same thing with the North Korea agreement. A lot was promised, a lot was claimed. Right now, it looks like there wasn’t much behind that.”
Jan Lipavský, a lawmaker from the Czech Republic, said in an interview that the disagreements between Trump and his intelligence chiefs amount to an “internal issue” that “you have to deal with somehow.” He said the president’s statements “need to be interpreted separately” because the “balance of powers in the U.S. will continue to support” the Baltic states.
“Donald Trump likes to make a lot of big headlines. But you have to look under those headlines and see what is the reality,” Lipavský said. “And the reality is created by the House and the Senate. The U.S. Congress has always been 100 percent behind the Baltic states.”
Following his one-on-one meeting with Putin on Monday, Trump appeared to side with the Russian leader—who has repeatedly denied election-meddling charges—instead of the U.S. intelligence community, which has unanimously concluded that Russia intervened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, at Putin’s orders, to help Trump and harm Hillary Clinton. Damian Collins, a member of the United Kingdom Parliament, said Trump’s message to America’s allies in the wake of his comments in Helsinki was, “you’re on your own.”
That base of support for the western alliance that remains present in the U.S. government includes congressional resolutions affirming U.S. support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, congressionally mandated sanctions targeting Russia, and statements from top U.S. officials which often contradict Trump’s own posture. In particular, European lawmakers have praised the Trump administration for approving new lethal defensive weapons systems for Ukrainian military forces, which are fending off Russian incursions.
“I was here two years ago right after his election—17 senators came up to me and said, ‘we’re with you, don’t worry about it,’” Kalniņš told The Daily Beast. “So we’re constantly getting reassurances from everyone else that a lot of what the president says is empty rhetoric, but that real policy continues to be made.”
The European lawmakers noted that their countries’ communications with the State Department, the Pentagon, and members of Congress continue to reaffirm that, in their view, the U.S. still stands with and supports the western alliance despite Trump’s criticisms.
Last week, for example, Trump criticized America’s allies at the NATO summit and later said the European Union was a “foe.”
“In a sense we hope that that continues to be true whenever the president makes a negative statement about NATO or a European leader,” Kalniņš said. “We’re disturbed when he criticizes Canada, Germany, France—these are our friends and neighbors. So we’re hoping real policy will be much more reasonable.”