McConnell calls Putin a ‘thug’ but refuses to criticize Trump

President Trump’s comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin in a pre-taped interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly scheduled to air before Sunday’s Super Bowl are raising eyebrows among some Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

In an excerpt of the discussion released by Fox Saturday night, Trump said he has “respect” for Putin but that doesn’t mean Trump’s “going to get along with him.”

When O’Reilly described Putin as “a killer,” Trump said the United States has killers too.

“There are a lot of killers,” Trump said. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”

On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a different description of Putin.

“He’s a thug,” McConnell said. “The Russians annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, and messed around in our elections. I don’t think there’s any equivalency between the way Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does.”

Mitch McConnell
McConnell addresses the media during a Republican conference in Philadelphia last month. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

But the Kentucky senator stopped short of criticizing Trump’s remarks.

“Look, Jake, I can speak for myself, and I already have, about my feelings about Vladimir Putin and the way the Russians operate,” McConnell said. “I’m not going to critique every utterance of the president. I obviously don’t see this issue the same way he does.”

Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse doesn’t either.

“You know, I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the president is trying to do,” Sasse said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” Sunday. “But let’s be clear. Has the U.S. ever made any mistakes? Of course. Is the U.S. at all like Putin’s regime? Not at all. The U.S. affirms freedom of speech. Putin is no friend of freedom of speech. Putin is an enemy of freedom of religion. The U.S. celebrates freedom of religion. Putin is an enemy of the free press. The U.S. celebrates free press. Putin is an enemy of political dissent. The U.S. celebrates political dissent and the right for people to argue free from violence about places or ideas that are in conflict.”

Sasse added, “There is no moral equivalency between the United States of America, the greatest freedom living nation in the history of the world, and the murderous thugs that are in Putin’s defense of his cronyism.”

On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Vice President Mike Pence refused to acknowledge there was a “moral equivalency” in the president’s comments.

“What you heard there was a determination to attempt to deal with the world as it is,” Pence said. “Let’s start afresh with Putin and start afresh with Russia.”

“Do you think America is morally superior to Russia?” host John Dickerson asked.

“What we have in this new president is someone who is willing to engage the world, including Russia, and saying, ‘Where can we find common interests that will advance the security of the American people?'” Pence replied. “The peace and prosperity of the world, and he is determined to come at that in a new and renewed way.”

“But is America morally superior to Russia, yes or no?” asked Dickerson again.

Pence demurred.

“I believe the ideals that America has stood for throughout our history represent the highest ideals of humankind,” Pence said.

“Shouldn’t we be able to just say yes to that question, that America is morally superior to Russia?” Dickerson asked.

“I think it is without question, John, that American ideals are superior to countries all across the world,” Pence said.

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