Democratic vice-presidential contender Tim Kaine clearly could not believe his luck.
“You guys love Russia!” he interjected.
Well, not on this night. For the first time, a member of the Republican presidential ticket took a firm stand against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. It's probably not a coincidence that this was because Donald Trump was nowhere near the stage.
Pence insulted Putin as a “small and bullying leader” who was “dictating terms to the United States.” He blamed President Obama and Clinton for having “awakened an aggression in Russia that first appeared a few years ago with their move in Georgia” — a move, which predates Obama's presidency, into that country — and “now their move into Crimea, now their move into the wider Middle East.”
He denied Kaine's charge that Trump did not know that Crimea was part of Ukraine, a question that stemmed from comments Trump made on ABC's “This Week” in late July. He disparaged Russia's economic strength — “our economy is 16 times larger” — and its “crony, corrupt capitalist system.”
He also denied having ever called Putin a stronger leader than Obama.
“Governor Pence made the odd claim,” Kaine said, “he said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama.”
“When Donald Trump and I observe that, as I've said in Syria, in Iran, in Ukraine, that the small and bullying leader of Russia has been stronger on the world stage than this administration, that's stating painful facts,” Pence replied. “That's not an endorsement of Vladimir Putin. That's an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership” of Obama.
Kaine called him out again. “Governor Pence said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama.”
“That is absolutely inaccurate,” Pence replied.
It was not. In September, Pence defended comments made by Trump about Putin by agreeing with his running mate. “I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” Pence said in an interview with CNN.
That was the split. There was campaign-trail Pence, toeing the Trump line of friendliness to Russia and its strong-leader president. Then there was debate Pence, offering up traditional Republican rhetoric against the country's long-standing foe.
Kaine repeatedly tried to bring up Trump's murky economic links to the country, similarly without success. Instead of suggesting that it would “be nice” if America “teamed up” with Russia, as his running mate has said, Pence demanded that the country respond to Russian expansion in the country with “strong, broad-shouldered American leadership." (Gone entirely was Trump's late-2015 idea that the fight in Syria be left to Russia entirely.)
In a debate filled with ways in which Pence sounded less like an acquiescent member of the Trump-Pence ticket than a man hoping to recast the ticket entirely, Pence's blasphemy on Russia was perhaps the most obvious example. Trump's Russia-friendliness has been a feature of his candidacy since before he was a candidate. Trump is the guy who appears on the Kremlin-backed Russia Today and who wondered on Twitter if Putin would become his “new best friend.” On Tuesday, Pence came across as the guy who would have nothing to do with someone who expressed such softness to the “Russian bear.”
Trump (or his Twitter team) was watching the debate. He weighed in about Russia only once, resurfacing an article from his website that first appeared in August. It wasn't a defense of his positions on Russia or a new statement following up on Pence's evolution. Instead, it was classic Trump, casting one of his own perceived weaknesses as a weakness of his opponent.
The article was titled, “Clinton's Close Ties to Putin Deserve Scrutiny.”