Republicans chafed at Donald Trump’s growing praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, warning that the Russian leader is no ally of the United States and underscoring an internal GOP debate a generation after Ronald Reagan made strong skepticism of Russia a bedrock principle of the party.
Trump – who has for months complimented Putin as a decisive leader, said at a town hall forum Wednesday that Putin has “been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader” and that he welcomes Putin’s praise.
Pressed on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and 2014 annexation of Crimea, Trump did not demur. “Do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?” Trump asked moderator Matt Lauer. He also marveled at Putin’s 82 percent approval rating among Russians.
Trump’s running mate reinforced the praise for Putin on Thursday, also contrasting him favorably with President Barack Obama. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence called it “inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been stronger in his country than Barack Obama has been in his country.”
The praise, coming a day after Trump also ridiculed American generals as “rubble,” sparked an immediate debate among Republicans, who stressed that they have their differences with Obama but criticized Trump for siding with an autocratic leader.
“If you are running to be leader of the free world and you find admiration for Putin, well, then, you’re losing me,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I think Vladimir Putin is a thug, a dictator, an autocratic ruler who has his opposition killed in the streets of Russia. He has dismembered his neighbor.”
Graham said he thought Putin had “walked all over” Obama but that he couldn’t agree that “Putin’s a better leader than a democratically elected president of the United States, even though I have differences with him.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters he did not want to do a daily “tit for tat” on Trump’s remarks, but nevertheless called Putin an “aggressor (who) does not share our interests.”
Ryan, who accused Putin of violating the sovereignty of his neighbors, also said it “certainly appears” that Putin is waging state-sponsored cyber-attacks on the U.S. political system. Russia is a prime suspect in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email system.
“That is not acting in our interests and that is an adversarial stance and he is acting like an adversary,” Ryan said.
Trump had said Wednesday that it was not known “for a fact” that Russia was behind the hacking. And he questioned why the United States shouldn’t work closer with Russia to “knock the hell out of ISIS.”
He called in Thursday night to RT America, the Russian television station, and told host Larry King that he was unfamiliar with Putin’s claim that the DNC hacking was a “public service”
“I don’t have any opinion on it,” Trump told King. “I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know who hacked; I’m not sure who. I mean, you tell me who hacked. Who did the hacking? I have absolutely no opinion on that.”
I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin. And I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia.
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said he’d “urge caution” about pursuing a closer alliance with Putin, noting that Russian forces in Syria are not directing strikes against the Islamic State but are more apt to be propping up Syria’s embattled leader.
“The idea that Putin is somehow a friend of ours, or that Russia is a friend, is a false narrative,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said at an event hosted by The Atlantic.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to criticize Trump but suggested that “one has to be a little careful to let flattery affect one’s judgment.”
The U.S. should work with Russia, he told CNN, but he added, “President Putin has operated in ways that very much have been against our interests . . . and has done so, in many ways, in a very ruthless manner.”
Daniel P. Vajdich, a former national security adviser to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s and Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaigns, said he found the fact that Trump was impressed by Putin’s popularity to be frightening.
“He points to Putin’s popularity as some sort of legitimization of Putin for everything he does,” Vajdich said. “The numbers are real – he is indeed popular – but there is an anti-democratic, authoritarian context that he totally ignores.”
Vajdich said he didn’t think Trump saw a political advantage to embracing Putin but that he “genuinely admires the man.”
He pointed to some similarities between the two, including Trump’s antipathy to the press, which the government largely controls in Russia: “Trump has had a ban on media outlets. He’s not terribly interested in media freedom. His attacks on Judge Curiel. He’s not terribly interested in judicial independence.”
Trump’s warm words may be helping Putin.
Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert and director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington research and policy center, noted that Putin appears to be “riding this apparent endorsement by Trump in order to be restored somewhat to mainstream credibility in western politics.”
He said it could be argued that Trump is serving Putin’s interests, or it could be that Trump is “setting himself up to be able to do the hard stuff that every other American president wants to do, which is try to secure cooperation with Russia.”
“To give the guy a little credit, it’s possible he’s doing this intentionally, that he’s not being manipulated by Putin,” Rojanksy said. “That he means, ‘Hey, if I get elected I have an opening to do something here.”
But former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said calling for a good relationship with Putin “is not a U.S. national security interest.”
He said that Trump has offered no specifics about working with Russia, beyond countering the Islamic State in Syria. McFaul noted that Secretary of State John Kerry was flying to Geneva on Thursday to meet with his Russian counterpart about reinstating an elusive cease fire in Syria.
“He (Trump) should give John Kerry a call,” McFaul said. “They’ve been literally talking for three years. Maybe Trump has some incredible skills of negotiating with Putin that have yet to be revealed.”
McFaul said he was alarmed by Trump’s remarks over the summer that he would look at recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which the United States has denounced. Only Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea have supported Russia’s intervention.
“That’s not a goal that I want him to use his good relations with Putin to achieve,” McFaul said.
Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.