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GOP lawmaker knocks Trump for Putin call but refuses to distance himself from president

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Chris Stewart, Donald Trump (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee chastised President Trump for congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection — but then refused to distance himself from Trump.

“You can’t have your head explode every time somebody does something you disagree with,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said during an interview on the latest episode of the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.” Stewart’s comments came just as the GOP majority on the Intelligence Committee was preparing to release its report saying it had found no evidence of collusion between Trump and the Kremlin relating to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Stewart said Trump was “just wrong” to call Putin and congratulate him on his reelection over the objections of his own national security aides, who wrote talking points for him with the wordsDO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

“I don’t think there is any chance in the world this was a free and fair election,” Stewart said about the voting in Russia. “They were stuffing ballots in every location. Vladimir Putin intends to be there for a long, long time.”

But Stewart, a former Air Force pilot and novelist before being elected to Congress, was extremely reluctant to openly criticize the president for his phone call or his dealings with Russia. Stewart noted that Trump has taken other steps that could deter Putin, such as increasing the Pentagon budget and pushing NATO countries to live up to their commitment to spend 2 percent of their gross national product on defense.

And Stewart vigorously defended the majority committee report — approved for release by the panel on Thursday upon a declassification review — that said the panel had found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

“I’m surprised you want to talk about this,” Stewart said during the interview. “I don’t know anyone else who is thinking about collusion. And if your audience is, they are going to be terribly disappointed. If you have people who are lying awake at night, going, ‘I can’t wait until Donald Trump is impeached for collusion,’ those dudes are going to be waiting a long, long time.”

He added: “We can ride this horse as long as you want. But the evidence is pretty clear that it’s not going to take people to the impeachment of Donald Trump, nor other people around him.”

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” by Yahoo News

Stewart dismissed suggestions from Democrats on the panel and others that the investigation by the committee’s Republican majority was incomplete. The panel never interviewed key witnesses such as former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos or former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The Utah Republican said that because such witnesses have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russians and are now cooperating in the probe being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller, the Intelligence Committee has not had access to them.

“We can’t talk to these people,” he said.

Similarly, Stewart said, he saw no need to subpoena documents from other witnesses, such as longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who has denied allegations made by former British spy Christopher Steele that Cohen had met with Russians in Prague during the 2016 election.

Of Cohen, Stewart said, “I have no reason to doubt his credibility.”

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