Jim Risch 5-17-18

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, arrives for a vote on Gina Haspel to be CIA director, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, May 17, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho offered a full-throated defense of President Trump’s handling of recent summit meetings with the leaders of Russia and North Korea, in an interview Wednesday on PBS’s "News Hour."

Risch, who is in line to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next year if Republicans keep their Senate majority in this year’s mid-term elections, said he differs “significantly” with current Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, on the matter. Corker Wednesday demanded that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explain the president’s “troubling” actions and statements, “in which we are antagonizing our friends and placating those who clearly wish us ill.”

Risch told the News Hour’s Nick Schifrin, “Well, first of all, Bob Corker is a really good friend of mine and I have great respect for his opinion, but he and I do differ significantly on a number of these issues. I think that Secretary Pompeo really laid out an excellent case today about how tough that President Trump has been on Russia, more so than any of his predecessors. … He did really an excellent job of putting to rest the national media’s obsession with this issue.”

When Schifrin asked Risch if he was concerned about the president’s rhetoric, Risch said, “Well look, everybody speaks differently. Certainly I wouldn’t say it the same way the president would, and nobody else would say it exactly the same way either. But … even the president’s enemies and his critics acknowledge that he has been tougher than anybody else. So you’ve got to look at what a person does and not pay nearly as much attention to the rhetoric.”

Risch went on to say that he believed Pompeo settled questions over whether Trump acknowledges that the Russians “were involved in the 2016 election.”

“Secretary Pompeo shot that right out of the chute when he started, and said that the president is absolutely convinced that it happened,” Risch said. “He trusts the intelligence agencies. I sit not only on the Foreign Relations Committee but also the Intelligence Committee. I’ve looked at thousands and thousands of documents. Everyone acknowledges that the Russians were involved. I think one of the problems they have is when people try to tie that to the president, saying that somehow he colluded. There was no collusion and there’s been no evidence of collusion, and I think the president rightfully takes exception to people who claim that there was.”

Risch’s comments echoed Trump’s own repeated statements.

Risch, 75, a second-term Republican who expressed distaste for Trump during the 2016 election and instead backed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for the GOP nomination, has in recent months become one of the president’s most vocal supporters in Congress. He’s also had increasing contacts with the administration, from joining the official presidential delegation to the Olympics in South Korea to receiving a phone call from Trump on Air Force One as the president returned from his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June.

Risch also praised Trump’s handling of negotiations with North Korea. “Look, this thing is moving forward well,” he told the "News Hour." “I’m just, I’m amazed when I turn on the TV and see the talking heads tell us, ‘Oh, the president’s failing on North Korea.’”

After Risch, Schifrin interviewed Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who offered an opposing view. Merkley said Pompeo’s answers to the committee’s questions were “absolutely not” sufficient, and said he believes Trump has actually been very slow to act on Russia and has had to be “dragged, screaming” into taking any firm stand, including the imposition of sanctions.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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