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Trump and Putin in Helsinki. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Republican Senate candidates are mostly sticking with President Trump after his disastrous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, which provoked so much criticism that he tried to walk back some of his comments today.

Why it matters: It's another clear sign the Republican Party is now the party of Trump. Even when he does the unthinkable — something that embarrasses White House officials and GOP allies — hopeful GOP senators aren't willing to deviate from their leader.

I reached out to 11 GOP Senate candidates to get their response to Trump's remarks about Russian election interference, when he seemed to side with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community. Of those, only two responded, but some have commented in other settings.

What they're saying:

  • Wisconsin's Kevin Nicholson called Russian leaders "ruthless, uncooperative and untrustworthy," but said he supports Trump.
  • Arizona's Kelli Ward tweeted: "Ignore the #TrumpDerangementSyndrome crowd - he’s keeping his promise & more importantly he’s keeping us safe."
  • Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta told a local news station that he agrees with U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, but that "it’s important to continue the dialogue between our two nations."

The other side: Not everyone is sticking with Trump. North Dakota GOP candidate Rep. Kevin Cramer told CNN: "President Trump is harder to defend than he is to explain sometimes. I wish he would have been more forceful."

  • Another Arizona candidate, Martha McSally, told the Green Valley News: "I do wish the President’s words on Putin ... were as strong as his actions.”
  • And one candidate dodged the question. Instead of responding to the president's remarks, West Virginia candidate Patrick Morissey's campaign asked if Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin had released a statement.

The reality is that they have no room to be disloyal. Trump has proven his power over the midterm elections, weighing in to boost his preferred candidates (like North Dakota's Kevin Cramer) and urging voters to oust fellow Republicans he doesn't like (Alabama's Martha Roby and West Virginia's Don Blankenship).

  • Today, Trump told reporters that he accepts the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia meddled in the election, adding that he meant to say, "I don't see any reason why it WOULDN'T be Russia."

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

Former Defense Secretary Esper sues Pentagon over book

Former President Trump and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House in 2020. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit Sunday against the Defense Department, accusing the Pentagon of "censoring" his First Amendment rights by redacting parts of his upcoming book on the Trump administration.

The big picture: Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until he was fired by then-President Trump in November last year, alleges in the suit that "significant text" is "being improperly withheld from publication" of the manuscript "under the guise of classification."

WHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries

Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The World Health Organization called on countries Sunday to not impose travel bans on southern African nations amid concerns over the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The U.S. and countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific announced travel restrictions in response to Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa. It's since spread to several European countries, Canada, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. The WHO noted in a statement that only two southern African nations have detected the new variant.

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