As the Republican candidate for vice president, Mike Pence is siding with his running mate and casting Russian President Vladimir Putin in favorable terms, saying this week that it’s “inarguable” that Putin is a stronger leader than President Barack Obama.
But as an Indiana congressman, Pence took a much more critical view of Russia under Putin’s leadership, signing a letter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 expressing alarm about “mafia-style assassinations” conducted against journalists in Putin’s Russia.
“We are especially concerned about the persecution of journalists in Russia, which has been occurring with increasing frequency, severity and impunity,” Pence, a co-chair and co-founder of the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press, wrote to Rice.
He urged her to ask Russia’s foreign minister for “appropriate action to protect the independence and freedom of journalists in Russia.”
He increased his criticism the next year. On the House of Representatives floor in 2007, he said the “rising tide of violence against journalists in Russia since the advent of the presidency of Mr. Putin is deeply troubling and ought to be troubling to anyone who cherishes the notion of a free and independent press.”
He noted that Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, who had recently died, “stood against Soviet totalitarianism, stood for democracy in his country” but he feared “this experiment in freedom and democracy, and particularly a free press in Russia, is passing into history as well. We do not conclude that, we fear it.”
The Donald Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In the letter to Rice, Pence and the other caucus members cited the case of Paul Klebnikov, the Russian-American editor of Forbes Russia who was killed in Moscow in July 2004, as a “tragic example of the kind of murder of journalists that have gone unresolved under President Putin’s administration.”
The letter added that Klebnikov’s murder “exposed the problem of violence against journalists in Russia and increased the awareness of widespread threats to press freedom” but was not an isolated case.
“Klebnikov was the twelfth reporter to be killed in mafia-style assassinations in direct reprisals for their journalism in Russia since President Putin came to power in 2000, and not one of the murderers has been brought to justice,” Pence and the other congressmen wrote. They added that Russian press law did not meet European standards and that criminal libel legislation was used “to intimidate and persecute journalists who criticize the government or its allies.”
Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine and an investigative reporter, was gunned down after he left work late on July 9, 2004. Klebnikov, who was 41 when he was killed, was an American citizen born to Russian emigrants who’d been a senior editor of Forbes in New York before assuming the editorship of Forbes Russia a few months before his death. He spoke Russian fluently and became attached to his ancestral homeland despite the corruption he doggedly tried to expose.
Pence’s new view of Putin came in a CNN interview Thursday in which he defended Trump’s praise for Putin at a national security forum. In an interview at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Pence likened Trump to the 40th president of the United States and said Trump was acting “boldly.”
Trump – who has for months complimented Putin as a decisive leader – said at a town hall forum late Wednesday that Putin has “been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader” and that he welcomed Putin’s praise.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who came into office with Pence and launched the press caucus with him in May 2006 with the goal of advancing press freedom, said Russia still had an abysmal record of allowing the killers of journalists to go unpunished.
“Mike always prided himself as a champion of Ronald Reagan’s memory, and to see the party of Reagan now led by Donald Trump, someone who speaks so glowingly of a Russian autocrat, a country that is invading his neighbors and dismantling its own democracy, it’s really just staggering,” Schiff said Friday.
“It’s sad to see Mike have to relinquish his principles in the case of Russia and surrender to Donald Trump on this. I can’t believe there’s any way in the world that Mike Pence is an admirer of Vladimir Putin, and to second Trump’s comment that he’s a better leader than our president, I can only think that Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave.”
Trump appeared on the Russian-government-funded TV station RT on Thursday night, telling host Larry King that he’s been most surprised by the “dishonesty of the media” in his run for the presidency.
“They will take a statement that you make – which is perfect – and they will cut it up and chop it up and shorten it, or lengthen it, or do something with it, and all of a sudden it doesn’t look as good as it did when you actually said it,” Trump said. “There is tremendous dishonesty with the media. Not all of it, obviously, but tremendous dishonesty.”
Trump also said it was “probably unlikely” that Russia was attempting to disrupt the U.S. election, despite investigators’ beliefs that the Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
“I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out,” Trump said. “Who knows? But I think that it’s pretty unlikely.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists cites Russia as the worst country in Europe and Central Asia at prosecuting journalists’ killers, noting that in nearly 90 percent of the murders of journalists in Russia, no one is convicted.