WASHINGTON — Democrats have seized on President Trump's comments alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin as the latest evidence supporting one of their central election year arguments: that the president needs to be reined in by Congress, and that Republicans aren't up to the job.
"President Trump's spineless performance was disappointing, dangerous, and detrimental to our national security," said a statement from Andy Kim, a Burlington County Democrat running in New Jersey's Third Congressional District. "It couldn't be clearer that we need change in Washington come November."
In Bucks County, fellow Democratic congressional contender Scott Wallace said in a release, "It's time to elect a Congress that isn't afraid to criticize Trump and demand that he tell Putin to stay the hell out of American democracy."
And in New Jersey's U.S. Senate race, incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez called Trump's Monday news conference a "watershed moment" when Republicans "must stand with us to contain a president who places his own insecurities about his electoral victory above the responsibilities of his office and the rights of all Americans."
Republicans also rebuked Trump over his comments seeming to side with Putin, blaming the U.S. and Russia alike for international tension and raising doubts about American intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
But while Democrats and some Republicans (mostly those finished with elective politics) launched full-throated condemnations expressing outrage, GOP lawmakers in the Philadelphia region walked a tightrope, as they have many times before. Running in moderate districts, they contradicted the president's comments and attacked Putin while avoiding the kind of personal denunciations of Trump that might alienate his many supporters in the GOP base.
Democrats argued that their words fell short.
Most Republicans asserted that Russia was in fact to blame for the election meddling, with some denouncing Putin as a "thug," and recited the many Russian offenses that Trump elided. They said relatively little about the president himself.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.), a close Trump ally who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, said he believed the U.S. intelligence agencies, but still praised the president for meeting with Putin.
"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 said Tuesday, arguing that the sit-down could lead to more stability in Syria and a reduction in nuclear tensions. "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."
The most direct criticism in a statement from U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), a former FBI agent from Bucks County, was that the president "missed the mark" and "must acknowledge" Putin's role in the election interference.
A statement from U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (R., N.J.) said, "I take issue with President Trump" for blaming the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship on American "foolishness."
In a follow-up interview, MacArthur said that he has made it clear when he disagrees with the president — including on recent family separations at the U.S. border — but that he believes in cooperation on the president's broader agenda, including cutting taxes.
A change in power in Congress, he said, would lead to nothing but impeachment hearings.
Democrats "are simply interested in opposing the president on every single issue and stopping his agenda completely. I'm not," MacArthur said. "I'm interested in working productively with the White House. I'm interested in advancing things that are good, and when the president I think is not going in the right direction, I have never shied away from saying so."
Some Republicans contend that voters are more concerned about Trump's policies and the strong economy than the daily controversies that consume Washington, though Democrats argue that conflagrations like the one over Russia add broadly to voters' sense of chaos gripping the country.
Republicans in Congress raised the possibility Tuesday of pushing back on the president by imposing new sanctions on Russia, and Trump walked back his comments, saying he misspoke Monday and accepts U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusions.
Democrats say congressional Republicans talk tough when a controversy is raging and then fail to take meaningful steps in response.
"Even in the face of Trump's stunning betrayal of American democracy, the strongest objection Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick could muster was saying Trump 'missed the mark.' That's it?" Wallace said in a statement.
Menendez, who would be in line to lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if Democrats took control of the Senate, said Congress should impose more sanctions on Russia, use its power over the budget to constrain Trump, and conduct rigorous oversight by questioning Trump officials in the Departments of State and Defense.
When his Republican challenger, Bob Hugin, called Trump's comments "very distressing," Menendez's Twitter account dismissed the statement as insufficient. Hugin called the senator "a disgrace" for comparing the Trump-Putin summit to a hypothetical meeting of U.S. and Japanese leaders after Pearl Harbor.
Kim and Wallace called for legislation that would make it harder for Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading an investigation into Russia's election interference. Wallace said Congress should introduce a resolution to censure the president.
A Fitzpatrick spokesman said the congressman has cosponsored a bill to protect Mueller and has supported sanctions against Russia, while accusing Wallace of "cheap sound bites."
Trump and fellow Republicans have faced seemingly landmark controversies in the past only for the president to keep rolling forward with broad GOP support.
Republican officials criticized the president during the 2016 election when the Access Hollywood tape showed Trump bragging about forcibly groping and kissing women, and again last year when he equivocated after a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va.
But new controversies quickly wash away old ones, and Republicans largely support Trump's policy aims, which, on domestic issues, typically line up with long-standing conservative goals.
"This idea of 'Let's just resist everything,' that's not what we need," MacArthur said.