The uproar over US President Donald Trump's perceived gaffes during his meeting with his Russian counterpart appears to be water off Republican voters' backs. Clare Richardson finds out why in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
State Senator Paul Bailey marched across the freshly-groomed dirt floor of an equestrian center in Murfreesboro, calling out greetings to the men and women on horseback waiting their turns to maneuver cattle inside a gated square.
Just like the roughly two dozen riders preparing to compete in the East Coast Reined Cow Horse Classic, Bailey sported a cowboy hat, button-up dress shirt, and over-sized belt buckle. He also shared a common sentiment with the participants who had traveled from across the country for the annual event he helped organize: general satisfaction with Donald Trump's presidency and a dismissive attitude toward the latest scandal enveloping him.
"I think a lot of times us politicians make a lot of noise without really knowing all the intelligence that goes behind the decisions the president makes," Bailey told DW, referring to the Helsinki summit this week between Trump and Putin that has sparked a political firestorm. "Many times politicians want to be camera hogs. They're just trying to be at the forefront of headline news."
Senator Paul Bailey says his constituents are more concerned about the economy than US-Russian relations
Conservative voters in one of Trump's stronghold states say they're not worried about criticism of the US president kowtowing to Putin or even convinced by media accounts of how their one-on-one meeting took place. The summit sparked bipartisan outrage over Trump's failure to criticize Putin or address alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections that his critics believe tipped the vote in his favor and that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office has been investigating for more than a year.
Bailey blames politicians for speculating about Trump and Putin's discussions behind closed doors, but is confident the true nature of the talks was positive.
"I'm assuming it was a good meeting and I'm assuming that our president basically was very pro-America and he certainly let President Putin know that."
'It's always the economy first'
Sareece Brown trotted laps around the ring, warming up her horse Amy. The mother of one from nearby Franklin, Tennessee, had heard about Trump's meeting with Putin ahead of the summit and the subsequent negative press, but hadn't looked into the outcome herself.
"I think all the negativity he gets is maybe from saying too much," Brown told DW, referring to Trump's freewheeling style that often catches his own aides and party off-guard. "He's been a shock to a lot of people. I do respect the fact that the man has not changed for other people. He has stayed true to himself and who he is."
Brown is more concerned by the state of the US economy than she is by foreign policy. She and her husband own a fiber optic boring company and sell property, and she says business had been booming in the last couple of years. "It's just been incredible the tremendous increase we have seen."
Bailey agrees that his other constituents also put US-Russian relations second to economic concerns. "I think it's always the economy first. Especially today, most people are concerned that they can make a good living and feed their family."
Republicans desperate to get messaging back on track
Democrats raced to decry Trump's behavior with Putin as disgraceful. Yet the criticism came from all sides. Former CIA director John Brennan called it "nothing short of treasonous." Some Republican senators were also quick to condemn Trump for initially appearing to believe the Russian leader's denial of election meddling over the findings of his own intelligence services. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake called it shameful, saying, "I never thought I'd see an American president throw the intelligence community under the bus like that and agree with an authoritarian dictator like he did."
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is investigating the possibility of forcing the translator from the meeting to turn over her notes. He also joined the chorus of criticism, telling CNN, "When (Trump) had the opportunity to defend our intelligence agencies who work for him, I was very disappointed and saddened with the equivalency that he gave between them and what Putin was saying."
More than anything, the Republican leadership has been frustrated that the summit has provided Democrats with more fodder to rally their base. As midterm congressional elections approach, they would rather focus voters' attention on issues like the tax reform plan they passed last year, as well as the strong state of the US economy. They're hoping the outrage surrounding the summit will blow over quickly.
Even if Trump is unable to assuage the deep concerns coming from NATO partners, Democrats, and within his own party, many of his core supporters that Republicans need to win in November won't be worrying about Russia when they cast their votes.
"If we were on the brink of going to war then obviously I think that would be on the forefront of everyone's mindset," Bailey said. "I think today most people are more concerned with taking care of their families."