WASHINGTON — A U.S. senator who just returned from a congressional trip to Russia warned against trusting President Vladimir Putin, saying that dealing with the Russian government is like "dealing with the mafia."
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., recently went with other GOP senators to see first-hand the Russian economy and meet with government officials. But the meetings, ahead of President Donald Trump's planned summit with Putin on July 16, turned "cantankerous" at times, he said. He described Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as a "bully."
"There is no political philosophy in Russia. It's sort of like saying, what's the political philosophy of the mafia," Kennedy told reporters Monday on Capitol Hill.
"Their philosophy is money and power. That's the philosophy of Putin. He rules with an iron hand. He's a dictator," Kennedy said. He noted there's "no free press" in Russia and said there's a vast gap in wealth between the elites and ordinary Russians. He said the Russian people "deserve better."
The senator said he had no problem with Trump meeting privately with Putin, but said he doesn't expect a diplomatic breakthrough.
"You can't trust Putin," Kennedy said. "I think the best we can do is try to contain him."
The senators were in Russia as part of a congressional visit headed by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. The trip came ahead of a summit between Trump and Putin in Helsinki.
The senators met with legislative leaders of Russia's legislative body, but Kennedy said the most difficult session was with Lavrov. The meeting, Kennedy said, got off to a rocky start when the senator addressed him as ambassador rather than the expected title.
"We didn't call each other an 'ignorant slut' or anything, but we exchanged words," the senator said.
Kennedy said the senators confronted the Russians about election interference in 2016. Kennedy said the senators warned the Russians if they interfere in the November election, Congress "will hit you with sanctions even harder than what we have right now."
He said the Russian response was to deny that they interfered in the election. "Deny, deny, deny," he said.
"I thought it was important for us to look them in the eye and say, 'Hey, we know what you're doing,'" Kennedy said.
Kennedy's takeaway from the meeting was that "what Russia wants is what Mr. Putin wants. And what Mr. Putin wants is status."
"It's really like dealing with the mafia."