Marco Rubio’s new bill that would swiftly punish Russia for any future election meddling is the latest evidence of a subtle split between the Florida Republican and certain elements of his party who parrot President Donald Trump’s argument that the investigations into Russian meddling amount to a partisan witch hunt.
Rubio recently worked with the liberal Washington, D.C., city council to rename the street in front of the Russian embassy after slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. He continues to assert confidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as other Republicans question Mueller’s motives. And his election-meddling bill, co-introduced with Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, would give more power to Congress instead of the president when it comes to sanctioning Russia over election interference.
But Rubio’s supporters on Capitol Hill insist that the second-term senator isn’t changing his ideals, and his actions aren’t driven by animus toward the president. Instead, Trump’s attitude toward Russia and the investigations, which have already resulted in the indictments of four former Trump campaign officials, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, is making anti-Russia hawks like Rubio more of an outlier within a Trumpian GOP.
“I think he’s true to his values and the values of our Republican Party,” Miami Republican congresswoman and Trump critic Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said. “It’s just now that instead of the Republican Party, it’s the Trump Party. But Marco is a true-blue Republican in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase. Who would think that being wary, suspicious of anti-Russian strong-arm tactics would be deemed as outliers?”
For Rubio, the hard talk on Russian meddling goes back to the 2016 election, when he dropped out of the presidential race after losing to Trump in the Florida Republican primary. Rubio said last year that his former campaign staffers were targeted by unknown Russian IP addresses.
“In July 2016, shortly after I announced I’d seek reelection to the U.S. Senate, former members of my presidential campaign team who had access to the internal information of my presidential campaign were targeted by IP addresses with an unknown location within Russia,” Rubio said at a Senate hearing. “That effort was unsuccessful. I do think it’s appropriate to divulge this to the committee, since a lot of this has taken a partisan tone.”
It’s not clear whether Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill will move quickly through Congress with massive support like a 2017 Russian sanctions bill that Trump grudgingly signed after it gained veto-proof support. Multiple Senate offices said that they’re waiting for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to issue specific election security recommendations before formally getting behind any legislation related to Russian election meddling.
But even some of Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress approve of Rubio and Van Hollen’s efforts, though they have a partisan argument for doing so.
“That would be great,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, when asked about the new sanctions bill. “That means if the Russians really did feed … the Democrats lies about Trump and tried to affect the election by feeding them lies about Trump, we’d be able to sanction them. I like that idea.”
It’s not clear where Trump stands on Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill, as the White House did not respond to a request for comment, though the White House said last year’s Russia sanctions bill “encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate.”
But Ros-Lehtinen said Trump’s argument that automatic sanctions will curb his executive power was also made by President Barack Obama, and that the president should cede more power to Congress if it’s clear the executive branch can’t broker good deals.
“President Trump may think that sanctions undermine his ability to make deals but this is eerily similar to Obama’s troubling statement to another Russian leader about having more flexibility after his reelection,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “We don’t need more deals with the Russians. Instead, we need more sanctions against countries like Russia that interfere in our electoral process.”
Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said that he expects Rubio’s bill to gain widespread support among Republicans, though a companion bill in the House of Representatives has not been introduced yet.
“I, for one, have said a million times the Russians have on many occasions been meddling in our affairs and have tried to meddle in our elections,” Diaz-Balart said. “I don’t think it’s going to be that controversial of an issue.”
Rubio and Van Hollen’s offices said their legislation is necessary because Trump hasn’t already acted to establish a framework for sanctions. Their bill would compel the president to implement specific penalties for the Russians within 10 days if the Director of National Intelligence determines that interference took place in any future elections.
And while other Republicans, such as Florida Rep. Francis Rooney, have called for a “purge” of the FBI and Justice Department after Mueller removed lawyers from his investigation who sent anti-Trump messages, Rubio isn’t changing his message.
“We used to think of Russia as the evil empire. We used to think of their anti-American actions as that, going against the grain of American traditional values,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Now, we’re supposed to admire Vladimir Putin’s strong-arm tactics? Marco brings us back to what our party used to be under Ronald Reagan and other esteemed leaders, a country that understood the dangers of communist, authoritarian regimes and a wariness, at best, for thugs like Putin who have a globalist attitude and have interfered with our democratic institutions. What’s happened to our party?”
McClatchy White House correspondent Anita Kumar contributed to this report.