WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz defended President Donald Trump Sunday amid reports that are raising new questions about the president's relationship with Russia, insisting that Trump's record shows he has been "tougher" on the U.S. adversary than past presidents.
When asked about The New York Times report that broke Friday — which says Trump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey triggered a counterintelligence investigation into whether the president was wittingly or unwittingly working to benefit Russia — the Texas Republican said the focus on special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation is a Washington-centric fascination.
"When you get outside the Beltway, I don't see anyone concerned about this at all," he said.
"If you compare objectively, President Trump's policies to Russia compared to President Obama's policies to Russia — by any measure, President Obama was much easier, was much more gentler on Russia," Cruz said.
News outlets reported in 2017 that Mueller was interested in the Comey firing as a possible example of obstruction of justice by the president. And Trump himself connected the firing of Comey to his frustration with the Justice Department's investigation into Russian election interference during a 2017 interview with NBC News' Lester Holt.
But the new Times report connects that event to the larger investigation into Russian interference in American politics and elections, asking if the president was acting effectively as a Russian agent, regardless of his intentions.
"Our collective understanding was much narrower — it was just on obstruction: Did the president break the law there?" New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, who broke the story, said on "Meet the Press" to explain the significance of the revelation.
"Now we know it was much broader, it has national security concerns. The FBI was afraid that the firing of Comey was a way to help the Russians stop the FBI from figuring out what they did in the election."
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who spent much of the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign criticizing Trump's posture toward Russia, called the report proof that Congress must protect Mueller's investigation from any meddling from the administration.
"They had to have a very deep level of concern about this president to take this step," Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, said of the FBI's decision to open the investigation.
"And that's again why we need to protect the Mueller investigation," he added.
Trump criticized the New York Times story in a Saturday morning tweet, and called the accusation he might be working to advance Russian interests "insulting" during a Saturday night interview on the Fox News show hosted by ally Jeanine Pirro.
The president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, also dismissed the report in a phone call with NBC News, where he argued "they obviously found nothing or else they would have reported it."
The Times story wasn't the only potential bombshell report to come out over the weekend about Trump and Russia.
On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that Trump personally intervened to hide readouts of meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House also panned that report, pointing to new sanctions on Russia as proof the administration is being tough on the adversary.