Putin sarcastically offers Comey political asylum in Russia

MOSCOW (AP) — Wading into the furor surrounding the investigations of the Trump White House, President Vladimir Putin used a national call-in show Thursday to disparage what he called U.S. “political infighting” that is blocking better relations with Russia.

The Russian leader even sarcastically offered political asylum to fired FBI Director James Comey.

Putin mixed the tough talk with benevolent promises about the Russian economy to disgruntled callers complaining about decrepit housing and low salaries during the four-hour marathon intended to burnish his father-of-the-nation image. But the 64-year-old wouldn’t say if he plans to seek another term in the 2018 election, although he is widely expected to do so.

Putin reaffirmed his denial of allegations by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, saying that Russia has openly expressed its views and hasn’t engaged in any covert activities.

He also tried to turn the tables on the U.S., saying it has sought to influence Russian elections by funding nongovernmental organizations as part of its aspirations for world domination.

“Turn a globe and point your finger anywhere, you will find American interests and interference there,” he said.

Putin also likened Comey to Edward Snowden, a contractor who leaked thousands of secret documents from the National Security Agency and has been living in Russia since being granted asylum in 2013.

“It sounds and looks very weird when the chief of a security agency records his conversation with the commander in chief and then hands it over to media via his friend,” Putin said.

“What’s the difference then between the FBI director and Mr. Snowden?” he asked. “In that case, he’s more of a rights campaigner defending a certain position than the security agency chief.”

On an acerbic note, he added that if Comey “faces some sort of persecution in connection with that, we are ready to offer political asylum in Russia to him as well.”

The remarks reflected Putin’s frustration with the investigations into alleged links between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. The inquiries have dogged the White House, shattering Moscow’s hopes for improving ties with Washington.

He called the allegations a reflection of “exacerbating political infighting.”

On a conciliatory note, Putin added that Russia still hopes for normalization of ties with the U.S.

“We don’t see America as our enemy,” he said.

He said Moscow and Washington could cooperate to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and pool efforts to tackle the North Korean nuclear and missile problem.

The two countries also could cooperate on global poverty and preventing climate change, he said, adding that the U.S. remains the essential player on climate despite Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord.

Moscow also hopes that the U.S. could play a “constructive role” in helping settle the Ukrainian crisis, he said.

During the tightly choreographed show, Putin said the country has climbed out of recession despite ongoing Western sanctions, adding that the restrictions have forced Russians to “switch on our brains” to reduce dependence on energy exports.

He deplored the U.S. Senate’s decision Wednesday to impose new sanctions as yet another attempt to “contain” Russia, but he insisted that such measures have only made the country stronger.

The Senate voted to punish Moscow for the alleged election meddling by approving a wide-ranging package of sanctions that target key sectors of Russia’s economy and individuals who carried out cyberattacks.

The bill follows several rounds of other sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

Putin argued that Russia has done nothing to warrant the Senate move, calling it an “evidence of a continuing internal political struggle in the U.S.”

Most of the questions during the show were about low salaries, decrepit housing, potholed roads, failing health care and other social problems in Russia.

Putin offered an optimistic vision, claiming that the “crisis is over” and pointing at modest economic growth in the past nine months, low inflation and rising currency reserves. He recognized, however, that incomes have fallen and 13.5 percent of Russians now live below the poverty line, equivalent to $170 per month.

As in the past, Putin chided regional authorities for failing to care for people and ordered them to fix the flaws quickly. Even before the show ended, local officials rushed to report that they are looking into the problems.

Asked about recent protests across Russia, Putin said he was “prepared to talk with everyone who genuinely wants to improve people’s lives and solve the country’s problems,” but dismissed unidentified opposition leaders for “exploiting the problems instead of offering solutions.”

Tens of thousands rallied Monday across Russia to protest official corruption, heeding a call by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He was detained outside his home in Moscow before the protest and was sentenced to 30 days in jail for staging an unsanctioned rally. More than 1,750 were detained nationwide and scores received jail terms and fines.

The 41-year-old Navalny said in December he would seek the presidency, vowing to appeal a fraud conviction he calls politically motivated that bars him from running.

During the call-in show, Putin remained coy about his own plans.

He is widely expected to seek another six-year term in the March 2018 vote, but he hasn’t declared his intentions. Putin served two presidential terms in 2000-2008 before shifting into the prime minister’s seat for four years because of term limits. He returned to the presidency in 2012.

If Putin serves another term, his two decades in power would make him the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who ruled for 29 years.

Asked if he was grooming a successor, Putin said he has some personal preferences, but it would be up to the voters to decide.

Putin offered a glimpse into his closely guarded private life, saying he has two grandchildren whose privacy he wants to respect.

Putin, who said on state TV in 2013 that he was divorcing his wife, has two daughters in their early 30s. One has been reported to be in charge of a lucrative project to build a Silicon Valley-like community under the auspices of Moscow State University.

During the show, he said both daughters live in Moscow and “work in science and education.” One grandchild is in pre-school and the other, a boy, has just been born, he said, adding he didn’t want to reveal more for the sake of their privacy.

“I don’t want them to grow up in a princely way. I want them to be normal people,” he said.

Amid other questions, Putin sparred with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who had cited a work by 19th century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov called “Farewell Unwashed Russia,” while hailing Ukraine’s visa-free travel deal with the EU. Putin backed his arguments with a quote from Ukrainian 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko.

Another questioner asked how Putin would use a time machine if he had one.

He replied that he would rather not play with the past.

“I think it’s better not to touch anything,” he said. “Things which were ought to happen will happen anyway, albeit with unknown consequences.”

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