Once again, President Trump’s professed admiration for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is causing headaches for fellow Republicans and drawing fire from Democrats – but this time, with a twist.
When Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly observed while interviewing Trump that Putin is “a killer,” the president retorted: “You think our country is so innocent?”
Vice President Mike Pence, asked in several talk-show appearances about the president’s seeming comparison of officially sanctioned extrajudicial killings in Russia with unspecified U.S. actions, said Trump had merely intended to stress his own desire to re-engage the Kremlin.
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“I simply don’t accept that there was any moral equivalency in the president’s comments,” Pence said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” casting the remarks instead as “an attempt to deal with the world as it is…to start afresh with Russia.”
Some congressional Republicans, though, sought to distance themselves from Trump’s apparent comparison – or attack it outright. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a onetime rival for the Republican presidential nomination, tweeted: “We are not the same as Putin.”
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” also said he saw no equivalency between the U.S. and “murderous thugs” acting at Putin’s behest, but said there might be additional context in the Trump-O’Reilly interview, which had not aired in full at the time he spoke. Excerpts had been released in advance.
Democrats were harsher in their response. “I really do resent that he would say something like that,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, also interviewed on ABC. She said she did not think there was any comparison to be made.
From his campaign days forward, Trump has spoken repeatedly of his hopes for a friendly relationship with Putin, prompting expressions of concern from some lawmakers and from European leaders who fear he is not sufficiently mindful of Russia’s bellicose moves in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Trump also spent the early days of his presidency feuding with the U.S. intelligence agencies over their assessment that Russian cyber-attacks were intended to sway the American presidential election in his favor.
The U.S. president has made similar remarks in the past about Putin’s reputation for violent retribution against perceived political enemies. He told interviewer Joe Scarborough in 2015 – when the talk-show host pointed out that Putin kills journalists who oppose him – that “our country has done plenty of killing , too.”
This was the first time since taking office, though, that Trump has used such language in defending Putin, whom he says he hopes to enlist as an ally in the fight against the jihadists of Islamic State.
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said in the Fox interview.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an interview on CNN, said he wasn’t going to “critique every utterance” of Trump’s, but didn’t defend him either.
“I obviously don’t see this issue the same way he does,” he said. “America is different – we don’t operate in any way the way the Russians do.”
Pence, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” avoided directly answering the question of whether he thought Trump had misspoken. He said it was important not to let “semantics” get in the way of exploring ways to work together with Russia.
Russia’s harsh dealings with dissenters came under renewed scrutiny this week when a prominent Putin critic – U.S. green card holder Vladimir Kara-Murza, who lives in Virginia -- showed symptoms of poisoning for the second time in two years during a visit to Moscow.
Rubio appeared to allude to that case in his tweet, asking when was the last time a Democratic political activist had been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa. The Florida Republican said separately on Twitter that sanctions on Russia should be lifted only if Putin halted aggressive actions in Ukraine.