In a 45-minute "tele-town hall" with Pennsylvanians Wednesday morning, Pat Toomey made clear -- again -- that he thought the Russians should pay a steep price for trying to shape the outcome of the 2016 election.
At the same time, however, he pushed back on suggestions that there be a cost for the man who won that election, President Donald Trump.
During the call, Toomey handled questions on topics ranging from taxation to gun-control and immigration. But he addressed a handful of queries about Trump's performance at a press conference alongside Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki this week. Among other controversial statements, Trump seemed to side with Putin, and against U.S. intelligence agencies that said the Russians had been actively supporting Trump's rival in the race, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Echoing statements he'd made previously, Toomey said, "I found the president's comments deeply troubling. ... Again, there is an inexplicable blindness to Putin's obviously hostile acts."
Toomey said he supported issuing warrants for 12 Russian agents who were indicted by the Department of Justice for their actions in 2016, and that he backed new sanctions agianst Russia for the election-related hacking that had already taken place. He also said the U.S. should "automatically impose a new round of sanctions that no President could block in the event that Russia were to intervene in the next round of elections.
"They need to understand that they're going to pay a price that's too steep for them to want to go down this road again," Toomey said.
But Toomey rejected a caller's suggestion that the Senate should delay voting on the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. The caller argued that allowing Trump to nominate a justice was "a clear conflict of interest" because of independent counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's 2016 activity, which may reveal ties to Trump's own campaign.
"I strongly disagree with the point that we should somehow delay or hold up the confirmation of what appears at this point to me to be a terrific candidate for the Supreme Court," Toomey said. While he said he hadn't fully vetted Kavanaugh, he said he seemed "eminently qualified" and added, "I just don’t see any good reason” for delaying the process.
Toomey also assured the caller that he was confident Trump would not interfere with the Mueller investigation itself, despite Trump's repeated characterizations of it as a "witch hunt," and reports that he was frustrated with the Department of Justice and its head, Jeff Sessions.
"We need to let Mueller finish his work," Toomey said. "Frankly, I’m pretty confident, unless he’s had a tremendous change of heart, that the President realizes that that’s what has to happen. He's not happy about it, no question, he hates what Mueller is doing, I get it. But I have not got any indication from him or anyone else at the White House that he intends to fire Mueller. I think they’re going to let this run its course, and that’s exactly what they should do."
But Toomey did not indicate any support for a measure that would protect the Mueller investigation from presidential interference. A bill that would protect Mueller from being dismissed by the White House received bipartisan support in a Senate committee this spring, but has idled since.
Toomey was not specifically asked about the measure in the town hall. And most of his remarks reprised an earlier official statement his office issued following the Helsinki conference.
Toomey initially responded to that event by asserting “it's clear that Putin is a bad actor and should be treated as an international pariah." The statement originally made no mention of Trump, though hours later it was amended to say, "President Trump's blindness to Vladimir Putin's hostile acts against the United States and our allies - election meddling included - is very troubling.”
Toomey has criticized Trump on Russia issues before, and has done so more sharply than many Republicans -- though he has been less caustic than Republicans like Senator John McCain. When Trump met with Putin a year ago, for example, Toomey told MSNBC that the meeting was "a big disappointment."
"Vladimir Putin needed to come away from that meeting understanding that he is going to have to pay a price for his aggression in Crimea, for his aggression in Ukraine, for his aggression in the American elections, " he said. "That should have been the message.”
A year later, it's still not clear that message has been sent.