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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Yes, almost every elected Republican we talk to privately thinks President Trump’s warm embrace of Vladimir Putin was unexplainable, unacceptable and un-American. Yes, they wish they could say this publicly. No, they won’t — not now, and probably never. 

The cold, hard reason: They see no upside in speaking out — and fear political suicide if they do, numerous Republican officials tell us.

  • Why it matters: This is the mind-control power Trump has, thanks to 90 percent of Republicans approving of his tactics and performance.
  • These 90 percent empower and are empowered by Fox News and a pro-Trump social media ecosystem that always comes to the president’s defense, even if they flinch for a moment or two. 

We just witnessed this power on full display:

  • You had a rare moment where virtually every Republican was aghast at Trump’s words.
  • But almost every Republican — except those leaving the stage — softened their direct criticism of Trump and ran from TV or reporters like the plague. 

GOP lawmakers' immediate complaints about the press conference were quickly tempered. Trump’s cleanup and turnaround yesterday ("I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't'") had one audience: Capitol Hill.

  • Senior staff saw a real risk of backlash — worse than after Charlottesville — if the brewing rebellion wasn’t nipped in the bud quickly, per sources close to White House.

Be smart: Most Republican members of Congress don't need to do anything so radical as actually believe Trump is sincere about correcting himself.

  • They need a fig leaf so they can justify quickly returning to support their president, who is vastly more popular with Republican voters than any of them are.

P.S. Two tweets illuminate this phenomenon:

  • Mike Murphy, GOP strategist: "I’m furious R’s are cowardly about Trump. But here is what they say in private: 1.) Trump is a disgrace. 2.) I give fiery press conf tmmrw saying that. 3.) Nothing changes, Trump remains nuts and remains POTUS. 4.) A nut beats me in next primary. So how does my pol suicide help?"
  • Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report: "Most Republican members are willing to admit POTUS doesn't operate in reality, but know they're doomed in their next primary if they say so publicly. As long as that's true, we're headed for a world w/ zero accountability."

The last word: Trump chimed in with a tweet at 5:53 Wednesday morning:

  • "So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!"

Go deeper: Axios' Alexi McCammond found most GOP Senate candidates are sticking with Trump.

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Go deeper

40 mins ago - Health

Pfizer begins clinical trial for Omicron-specific COVID vaccine

A health worker in Palestine preparing a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine on Jan. 24. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pfizer and BioNTech announced Tuesday that they have started clinical trials for a reformulated vaccine to protect against the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Why it matters: The rise of the Omicron variant has forced vaccine makers to reassess the effectiveness of their vaccines.

Retail stock traders power stunning comeback after deep selloff

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Stocks staged a Patrick Mahomes-esque comeback Monday, after plunging for the first few hours of trading.

Why it matters: The remarkable recovery suggests that retail traders who upended markets over the last year — most notably during the GameStop bonanza that occurred almost exactly a year ago — continue to be powerful influence in the markets.

America can't quit polarizing politicians

Expand chart
Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

New data finds that the nation's most polarizing politicians are often the ones that garner the most attention online.

Why it matters: Online engagement helps politicians build a bigger national profile and more fundraising power, incentivizing them be more outrageous, more polarizing and more divisive.