Donald Trump is again under fire for warm comments he directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin, this time calling him a stronger leader than US President Barack Obama at a national-security forum this week.
“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” the Republican nominee said.
“I’ve already said he is very much of a leader. The man has very strong control over his country.”
“You can say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a terrible thing,’ I mean, the man has very strong control over his country,” the Manhattan billionaire added. “Now it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly in that system he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
While Trump’s fascination and appreciation of Putin is nothing new, the latest round of comments made during NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum on Wednesday has seen an increased defense from some in the GOP.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said it’s “inarguable” that Putin has been “a stronger leader” in Russia than Obama’s been in the US. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said he thought Putin was stronger than Obama because he saw Russian nationalism increase “substantially” and that Russians “are proud of being Russians today.”
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt also joined the fray, insisting that although Putin is “an evil man” and Obama is “good” but “incompetent,” Putin has served the national interest of Russia better, and “he’s eating USA’s lunch.”
Other prominent conservatives delivered strong statements disavowing any positive thought from the Republican Party toward Putin, a subject that has remained in the headlines as Trump refuses to say a negative word about the autocratic Russian leader.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called Putin an “aggressor that does not share our interests” and who violates the “sovereignty of neighboring countries,” while adding that it appears Putin’s regime is involved in “cyberattacks on our political system,” referencing the hacks on prominent Democratic organizations.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the “calculation from Trump unnerves me to my core,” and although Putin has “walked all over Obama,” Graham wouldn’t agree that the Russian leader is better than the US president. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and once in the running to be Trump’s running mate, expressed concern at the idea Trump welcomes compliments from Putin.
“You know, flattery can be used as a tool that sometimes bears very negative fruit,” he said. “One has to be careful about letting flattery affect one’s relationship with a person or a country.”
But Trump’s apparent approval of Putin has gone a long way with rank-and-file GOP voters, who, in 2012, had a presidential nominee in Mitt Romney that called Russia “our number-one geopolitical foe” after a hot mic picked up Obama telling Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev that he’d have “more flexibility” to discuss missile defense after the election.
A poll from the same outlets released in August 2016 showed that Putin’s net-favorability rating among Democrats remained identical. But the Russian leader’s rating among Republicans improved dramatically, from -66 to -27.