It took just a few hours for Donald Trump to frustrate the GOP’s fresh confidence in his national security platform, following up his embrace of Republican defense priorities by heaping praise on Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Senior Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), tried to avoid commenting directly on Trump’s remarks at an MSNBC forum on Wednesday that Putin has “been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.” The GOP nominee also said he welcomes Putin’s praise and claimed the Russian president has an 82 percent approval rating at home.
When asked about Trump’s comments, Ryan noted Thursday only that “Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests” and that the Russian president “is acting like an adversary.”
But some Republicans seemed uncomfortable, or more, with Trump’s newfound friend.
“Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, he’s a good guy,” quipped Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) of Putin.
Graham, a former presidential candidate, has often sparred with Trump and is one of his most vocal critics. “This calculation by Trump unnerves me to my core.”
Some top lawmakers were concerned about the idea that Trump welcomes praise from Putin (the GOP nominee said in the forum that “when he calls me brilliant, I think I’ll take the compliment, okay?”).
“You know, flattery can be used as a tool that sometimes bears very negative fruit,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was once on the short list to be Trump’s vice president. “One has to be careful about letting flattery affect one’s relationship with a person or a country.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s surrogates on the Hill scrambled to either dismiss Trump’s admiring take as so much “noise in the wind” — as Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) put it – or, alternatively, to attempt to cast Trump’s approach as strategic.
“You know, maybe he’s playing to Putin’s ego,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), emerging from a meeting of the GOP nominee’s surrogates Thursday morning. “Russia is a threat, and I think Mr. Trump may be playing it very smart with how he addresses Mr. Putin.”
Trump’s effusive praise of Putin’s leadership, which his rival Hillary Clinton leaped on Thursday as “unpatriotic,” put congressional Republicans in the uncomfortable spot of once again having to reconcile their nominee’s comments with the GOP’s conviction that Russia is one of the top threats to America.
Even some of Trump’s surrogates wish the nominee would turn his Russia focus away from lavishing praise on Putin and toward criticizing Clinton’s dealings with Russia as secretary of state.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said that Trump’s comments were distracting voters from the message that marks the Republican nominee’s “high ground,” which is talking about “the failures of Hillary Clinton’s reset [with Russia] and what that did.”
Clinton headed up the State Department when the Obama administration attempted to refresh relations with Russia in a 2009 “reset” that most agreed had failed by the time Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Perdue said Trump should focus his message more on “what we didn’t do in Ukraine, what we didn’t do in Crimea, and what we haven’t done in Syria” than on his personal affinity for Putin.
Russia may be a top threat, but to Trump surrogates, it doesn’t pose the same dangers to the United States as radical Islam – and thus, is worth courting as an ally. Trump said Wednesday night that an alliance with Russia would help defeat the Islamic State.
And some GOP lawmakers agree.
“Russia’s not going to invade the United States — we’re not going to take over Russia,” said Trump surrogate Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), noting that Putin was “a good partner” to help defeat “radical Islam.”
“You can say mean things about Putin but then give and give and give over and over again,” Hunter added, explaining that was how the Obama administration had operated vis-à-vis Russia. “What’s wrong with talking, saying, ‘Hey we can work together,’ but then actually taking a very hard stance? I think that’s what a president does.”
Collins also pointed out that Russia could help on ISIS.
“It’s what a CEO does, reaching out to those where we may have major disagreements,” Collins said. “When it comes to ISIS, there are not major disagreements.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report