U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran pushed back Monday on the perception that Republican lawmakers were timid during their meetings with Russian officials last week.
Moran, a Kansas Republican, was one of eight lawmakers who spent July Fourth in Moscow as part of a Republican-only trip to Russia, Finland and Norway.
The trip, which came amid the ongoing investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 election, has caused backlash in the United States.
Moran and other lawmakers promised to press Russian officials about election interference ahead of the trip, but whether that happened has been called into question by the Russians involved in the meetings.
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One of the Russian officials called the meeting with the U.S. lawmakers one of the easiest of his life.
“None of the meetings were easy or enjoyable,” Moran said Monday.
“I think it’s clear that the Russian media or the Russian government have a narrative that they’re trying to portray,” he said. “I don’t believe the Russians when they say they didn’t interfere with the elections, and I don’t believe them when they portray the meetings so different from how they occurred.”
Moran said that some of the criticism of the visit in the United States could be due to Americans believing the narrative being pushed by Russia's state-run media.
He described the meetings with Russian officials as intense and said the topics included Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine, its role in the conflict in Syria and interference in elections in the United States and Europe.
He said that there was “no equivocation about election interference” but that the reaction from Russian officials to questions about the issue was mostly “denial, obfuscation, long diatribes and lots of complaints about the United States.”
Moran said it was the first time he'd spent July Fourth outside of Kansas. He said he could not think of a more meaningful way to spend Independence Day than to celebrate with the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
Torrey Taussig, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an email that the congressional visit to Russia “appears to have been unproductive and ineffective.”
She said that the fact the lawmakers were all from one party hurts the credibility of the visit and that the decision of the U.S. lawmakers to not hold any news conferences during the visit to explain the substance of the individual meetings “allowed Russian state media to portray their visit as a sign of American naiveté and overeagerness to develop a better relationship with Russia.”
Taussig said it’s also “unclear whether the (congressional delegation) achieved its stated aim of pushing back on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. It instead gave the impression that the U.S. is willing to negotiate and move beyond differences with Russia at a time when the U.S. should be clear-eyed and united in addressing Russia's efforts to weaken U.S. and transatlantic security.”
President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki later this month. The meeting with Putin will take place after Trump meets with NATO allies for a summit in Brussels.
Moran said that during his meetings with Norwegian officials, he emphasized the country’s continued commitment to NATO, a strategic alliance of Western nations formed during the Cold War.
The U.S. commitment to NATO has come under question because of Trump’s public statements.
“We need to make sure our alliance is strong as we deal with Russia,” Moran said of NATO. “I hope the results (of the summit) are a united NATO as President Trump visits with President Putin.”