After his press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, President Trump received widespread blowback — including from many inside his own party — for appearing to accept Putin's denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said there was "no question that Russia interfered in our election." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed those comments, saying "the Russians are not our friends."
In Ohio, Chris Gagin went one step further. On Monday, Gagin announced he was resigning as the chairman of the Republican Party in Belmont County, a position he had held since 2016.
In a pair of tweets, Gagin said he could no longer serve in his role "as a matter of conscience, and my sense of duty."
"The President is entitled to GOP party leaders, at all levels, fully committed to his views and agenda," he wrote. "... I could no longer fulfill that duty. Thus, I resigned."
Upon returning from the Helsinki conference, Trump said he misspoke, and that when he said he saw no reason why it "would" be Russia that interfered in the 2016 election, he meant to say he saw no reason why it "wouldn't." The president said he accepted "our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place," yet in the same statement, he said it "could be other people also; there's a lot of people out there."
Gagin wasn't convinced. In an interview with Scott Simon for NPR's Weekend Edition, he called the Trump-Putin meeting the "last straw" for him — particularly in the aftermath of the Justice Department's indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers on charges related to election interference.
"I just could not fathom — as a citizen of the United States — the president of the United States, whose sworn duty is to protect the interests and security of the United States, was willfully choosing to believe Vladimir Putin over the consensus view of the intelligence community," Gagin says.
Gagin, an attorney in private practice, compared Trump's mixed messages on Russia to when courts apply "prior inconsistent statements" as grounds for the impeachment of a witness.
"As much as I would hope to be able to take the word at face value of the president, there are just too many examples of these walk backs, and quite frankly, the distinction between 'would' and 'wouldn't' ignores the entire context in which that press conference in Helsinki transpired," he says.
Since his resignation, Gagin says he's been praised by more Democrats than he has Republicans. He says some have stamped him as "a traitor."
"I'm sure I'll be somewhat ostracized locally," he says, "but each of us has to follow their own moral values and compass in this regard, and my conscience, I'm very clear and have no regrets in terms of what I did or why I did it."
In response to critics who say he should stay on as chairman to fight for his beliefs, Gagin says his role as party chairman to get Republican candidates elected conflicted with his unwillingness to stand by Trump's agenda.
While Belmont County was once a reliably Democratic district, it is now solidly red. The county voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012, and in 2016, Trump won more than two-thirds of the vote there over Hillary Clinton.
But Gagin warns that Trump's actions, including his policies on trade and tariffs, risk alienating "mainstream conservative" voters like him.
"I have very deep concerns about the way the president has conducted much of his administration," he says. "If the president starts to lose individuals like me, as an establishment or just mainstream conservative, and if he starts to lose independents of a conservative bent, he's going to have a real hard time holding office in 2020."
NPR's Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this story for broadcast.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. That very same day, Chris Gagin, the Republican Party chairman for Belmont County, Ohio, resigned his post. He tweeted (reading) the president is entitled to GOP party leaders, at all levels, fully committed to his views and agenda. Following today's press conference, I could no longer fulfill that duty. Thus, I resigned.
Chris Gagin joins us now. Mr. Gagin, thanks so much for being with us.
CHRIS GAGIN: Thanks so much for having me.
SIMON: What was it about the press conference and any or everything else that made you decide to step down?
GAGIN: I happened to be watching the press conference live on Monday. And I just could not fathom as a citizen of the United States that the president of the United States, whose sworn duty is to protect the interests and security of the United States, was willfully choosing to believe Vladimir Putin over the consensus view of the intelligence community. And I felt, at that point - I've described it as something snapped. And I simply could not any longer be the face, if you will, of President Trump here in Belmont County. And I thought my duty, as my conscience told me, was that I needed to resign. And that's what I did.
SIMON: And when the president said a day later, you know, I got would and wouldn't confused, that didn't convince you?
GAGIN: No. I'm a lawyer. We have something in court called prior inconsistent statements that we would use to impeach a witness. And, quite frankly, the distinction between would and wouldn't ignores the entire context in which that press conference in Helsinki transpired. So I'm afraid I do not find that as a credible walk-back.
SIMON: I have to ask, Mr. Gagin - Belmont County's home to Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal company in the country. Hasn't President Trump's administration been good for companies like Murray Energy in Belmont County?
GAGIN: Truthfully, there's no question. They have rolled back a great number of Obama-era environmental regulations that have benefited the coal companies. And, you know, from that standpoint, it is interesting. The base here is kind of the well, what about us crowd? You know, who's going to take care of us? And, in that regard, you have to give the president his due. He's doing what he said he would do. And that's in contrast - locally, at least - with - we recall in - going all the way back to '92, that Bill Clinton and Al Gore came through the northern panhandle of West Virginia, which we're basically just across the river from - coming out of their convention in Philadelphia promising to stand up for steel. And then, basically, nothing was done.
So when the sociologists or the political scientists look as to why eastern Ohio has turned from solid blue to, in effect, solid red - or at least trending that way - it's largely because of those sort of promises not kept by Democratic leaders and the fact that the president, whether you agree with him or not, is following through on those promises to at least keep those blue-collar folks that I used to lead - keep them foremost in his mind.
SIMON: Would you vote for president Trump in 2020?
GAGIN: Well, as the president likes to say so much, we'll see. I have some policy differences personally, you know, with the president. I would consider myself more of a mainstream conservative in terms of ideology, so I'm not a big fan of these tariffs and trade wars, if you will. And I have very deep concerns about the way, you know, the president has conducted much of his administration. You know, I think it's an interesting question from this regard. If the president starts to lose individuals like me as a sort of a establishment sort of - or just a mainstream conservative, and if he starts to lose independents of a conservative bent, he's going to have a real hard time holding office in 2020.
SIMON: Chris Gagin, former chairman of the Belmont County, Ohio, Republican Party, attorney in private practice now, thanks so much for being with us.
GAGIN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.