LOUISVILLE -- Now that President Donald Trump is in the White House his team is figuring out that Russia is "never up to any good," the top Senate Republican said Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had harsh words for the Russians and their role in Syria during a session with reporters in his home state of Kentucky. McConnell's criticism coincided with Rex Tillerson's first visit to Russia as U.S. secretary of state.
Asked about Russia's involvement in Syria, McConnell said: "The one thing you can be sure about with the Russians is they're never up to any good, and they're not our friends. And I think the new administration is figuring that out. They may have been somewhat confused about it during the campaign, but I think they're in the process of figuring that out."
McConnell said the missile strikes that Trump ordered on a Syrian airfield last week sent an important message to U.S. adversaries and allies -- that the new Republican president "is going to pursue a more assertive role in the world."
The retaliatory strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad for his assault on civilians with chemical weapons won't solve "the Syrian quagmire," McConnell said. Trump ordered the missile strikes after U.S. evidence indicated Assad killed civilians using the nerve agent sarin.
"What's clear is that America took a significant action, as opposed to sitting on the sidelines and hoping for the best," he said.
The Kentucky Republican acknowledged there's no easy solution to war-torn Syria, and said the U.S. and Russia have taken opposing sides in the conflict.
"What we have been trying to do is to help the so-called freedom fighters in Syria," he said. "The Russians and the Iranians are trying to help the regime."
Whatever solution is reached should not include keeping Assad in power, the senator said.
"I think the solution can only end with some kind of political settlement," McConnell said. "And it seems to me any political settlement that continued the Assad regime just can't possibly work. I mean, the man is a butcher, and he's been doing this for years."
Amid tensions with Russia, McConnell's counterpart in the House -- Speaker Paul Ryan -- announced that he will be leading a congressional delegation next week to the United Kingdom, Norway, Poland and Estonia. Ryan's office said the goal of the trip is to strengthen economic and security ties with NATO partners, who warily eye Russia.
On domestic issues, McConnell said he hasn't given up on the GOP's languishing health care overhaul drive. "The discussions continue," he said. "It will start in the House. ... If the House is able to pass something, it will come over to us and we'll do our best to pass it."
While the health care issue has sharply divided Republicans and Democrats, McConnell predicted a more bipartisan effort on a plan expected to be offered by the Trump administration for new spending on roads, bridges and other construction over the next decade.
McConnell's wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, is playing a key role in the infrastructure plan. The administration has been crafting a package of tax breaks meant to help spur $1 trillion in new spending on transportation projects over the next decade. Trump also wants to drastically shorten approval times for projects as part of the deal.