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Is Donald Trump actually praising Vladimir Putin?

Donald Trump has repeatedly called Vladimir Putin a "strong" leader, but toes a fine line on praising the Russian president. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had a moment last fall. Some even called it a bromance.

While the term "bromance" might have been a bit of a stretch, the two were certainly, for a short period, playing a game of diplomatic telephone, saying complimentary things about each other in front of news cameras.

But Trump insists that he hasn't said Putin is "good" (more on "good" coming up), despite repeatedly calling Putin "strong" and saying they'd "get along fine."

Trump went as far as promising that, if he were president, it would be easy to extradite former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, who was granted asylum in Russia in 2013.

"If I'm president, Putin says, 'Hey, boom, you're gone.'" Trump said. "I guarantee you that."

Then, in a news conference, Putin called Trump "very talented, no doubt about that" and the "absolute leader of the presidential race." Trump called that an "honor."

But still, Trump maintains that he hasn't said Putin is a "good" leader. So where exactly is the line between compliments and simply trying to get along with everyone, one of Trump's most frequently repeated boasts? Trump simultaneously frames himself as a tough negotiator, a deal-maker and a no-nonsense executive who can't be bullied.

He's walking a fine line. That's what prompted Jake Tapper to ask Trump at Thursday's debate about "praising authoritarian dictators." Tapper didn't just cite Putin – he also referenced an interview Trump gave to Playboy magazine in 1990 in which Trump said the Chinese government's suppression of protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 "shows you the power of strength."

"But the word 'strong,' obviously, is a compliment," Tapper pressed. Trump pushed back. It's a tactic he uses often – associating himself with a certain viewpoint, often controversial, but not quite committing to it.

Trump might insist that he's not praising Putin by calling him "strong" – but he's sure coming close.