At Wednesday night's Commander-in-Chief Forum, Donald Trump said that Russian President Vladimir Putin "has been a leader far more than our president has been a leader," citing Putin's high poll numbers in Russia and welcoming Putin's flattery: "If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him." This put the Republicans who have endorsed Trump but don't agree with his views on Putin in a tight spot. "Vladimir Putin is an aggressor who does not share our interests," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) said Thursday. Sen. John McCain called Putin "a murderer and a thug." Neither would criticize Trump's comments.
In a news conference on Thursday, Hillary Clinton panned Trump's nice words for Putin, calling them "not just unpatriotic and insulting to the people of our country, as well as to our commander in chief — it is scary," and rubbing in the GOP discomfort with an apparently pro-Moscow president: "What would Ronald Reagan say about a Republican nominee who attacks American generals and heaps praise on Russia's president?" Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, did not back down from Trump's comment, though, telling CNN: "I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country."
Donald Trump didn't seemed fazed by the blowback, either. On Thursday night, he sat down for an interview with RT (formerly Russia Today), the Russian state-owned TV network. Trump told Larry King allegations that Russia is trying to interfere in the U.S. election are overblown. "I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out," he said. "Who knows, but I think it's pretty unlikely." The U.S. intelligence community reportedly thinks Russian interference is pretty likely, and Ryan, the top elected Republican, accused Putin on Thursday of "conducting state-sponsored cyberattacks" on "our political system." But if the optics of backing Russia on a Kremlin-owned network after a day of criticism about his praise of Putin look bad, Trump's spokeswoman had an explanation: Trump thought the interview was going to be on King's podcast, not RT.