A woman walks past a mural on a restaurant wall depicting U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin greeting each other with a kiss in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on May 13, 2016. (Petras Malukas/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Opinion writer

For almost a year the press, foreign policy hands, Democrats and Republicans have attacked Donald Trump for his worship of Russian president and thug Vladimir Putin. Trump adores people who compliment him (Putin said “nice things” about him so Trump was hooked), so Putin’s passing praise of the sycophantic real estate mogul — plus an assortment of Putin apologists in his coterie of advisers — have elicited from Trump comical praise of the corrupt dictator (a “strong leader”), favorable comparison to President Obama, weird moral equivalence (e.g. “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” he said of mysterious deaths of Russian journalists), unwarranted envy of Putin’s poll ratings (terrific, but not as high as Saddam Hussein’s!) and bizarre denial (Putin’s “not going into Ukraine. You can mark that down”).

Now, however, vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence made news — and got better reviews! — taking a hard stance against Putin and Russian aggression. He scolded the administration because “the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States to the point where all the United States of America — the greatest nation on Earth — just withdraws from talks about a cease-fire while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defense system in Syria.” It is not surprising Pence garnered praise from foreign-policy hawks. The John Hay Initiative in its series of policy explainers was among the laudatory voices:

We share Governor Pence’s view of President Putin. Putin’s brutal and authoritarian rule, his invasion of neighboring states, his support for the murderous Assad regime, and his virulent anti-American propaganda make him unworthy of any respect, praise, or admiration from an American presidential candidate. As for Putin’s approval rating, he controls the media, especially television, he snuffs out any perceived threats, and has created a climate of fear that deters Russians from answering pollsters’ questions candidly. Small wonder that Putin has impressive poll numbers. Moreover, Putin described Trump by saying he was “bright” or “colorful,” not “brilliant,” as Trump has claimed. Putin even clarified this in an interview with Fareed Zakaria in June when he said, “I said in passing that Trump is a vivid personality. Is he not? He is. I did not ascribe any other characteristics to him.”

JHI even provides a helpful list of questions for curious reporters:

  • Given all this, what exactly is it that you admire about Mr. Putin?
  • Will you maintain sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine?
  • Will you recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea? Was Putin correct to justify his annexation in the name of protecting the Russian-speaking people of Crimea?
  • Will you continue sanctioning Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses as required under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act?
  • Do you think corruption is a problem in Russia?
  • Do you really think he is a better leader than President Obama?

And — wouldn’t you know it? — just like that Trump suddenly is trying to downplay his Putin crush. “I don’t love, I don’t hate. We’ll see how it works. We’ll see. Maybe we’ll have a good relationship. Maybe we’ll a horrible relationship. Maybe we’ll have a relationship right in the middle.” (It does not dawn on Trump that the relationship is dependent on Putin ceasing to do things that are contrary to our national-security interests.)

Wait a second. As the Clinton campaign insisted on Trump’s retreat from birtherism, there is no walking back more than a year of Trump’s winks, nods and bouquets tossed Putin’s way. If Trump now wants to acknowledge his gross ignorance and erroneous assessment of Putin and to concede his vice president understands Putin better than he does, he is welcome to do so. That of course might raise questions about electing someone so out of touch with reality that it took resentment of Trump’s VP’s superior debate performance to end his Putin fantasy.

If the moderator and audience members at Sunday’s debate don’t grill Trump on his Putin infatuation, Clinton surely should. She might begin with: Why didn’t you figure out the Pence approach to Putin over a year ago?