WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., isn’t ready to get cozy with Russia, comparing it to “the old Soviet Union” on Tuesday.
A month after the Helsinki summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, at which Trump discredited U.S. intelligence and American policies isolating Moscow, the powerful Senate leader showed he was on a separate track.
“The Russians are not our friends. They try to create problems in every way they can,” McConnell said in a news conference at Fort Knox, Kentucky, set up to tout the $716 billion National Defense Authorization Act that Trump signed into law Monday.
“I think the Russians are acting like the old Soviet Union used to act,” McConnell said, pointing to its alleged meddling in U.S. and European elections and its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. (Louisville-based Spectrum News posted video of the presser.)
Without mentioning it directly, McConnell displayed his differences with Trump and Sen. Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky and an outlier in the Senate when it comes to Moscow. Paul, who visited Russia this month, said the politics in America around the issues are poisoning the chances for cross-Atlantic dialogue.
Trump’s openness toward Russia has fueled tensions over the separation of powers. Trump issued a signing statement for the NDAA that claimed some provisions mandating tough action on Russia would actually impinge on the powers of the executive branch.
“This signing statement is troubling because, yet again, the President is showing the world he cannot be trusted when it comes to standing by U.S. commitments and promoting our interests over his own," the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement. He called on Trump to "unequivocally stand strong for the United States and our allies and against Kremlin aggression.”
The Senate has taken a few bipartisan shots at Trump on Russia, voting overwhelmingly to affirm support of NATO and unanimously to oppose giving the Kremlin access to U.S officials. Still, Senate GOP leaders blocked a bipartisan measure to reject Putin’s denial of election interference, mandate immediate enactment of sanctions passed by Congress last year and ask Senate committees to hold hearings into the summit’s private meeting between Putin and Trump.
On Tuesday, McConnell lauded the NDAA’s aid for Fort Knox (home to Army Human Resources Command), its authorized end-strength boost, and its recognition of America’s tense relationships with Russia and China.
“It would have been denying reality and in a sense putting our head in the sand not to have a significant increase in military spending,” McConnell said, acknowledging Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ advocacy to Trump and Congress for added spending.
“In fact, we gave the Department of Defense exactly what they asked for,” McConnell added.
The Senate leader also praised Trump’s tough stance against China on trade.
“We’d rather not be adversaries, but we don’t have a perfect relationship either,” McConnell said of Beijing. “The Chinese have become more aggressive on the military side, which has been unusual for them in the past.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.