In a past election cycle, a presidential candidate calling one of the U.S. top’s foreign rivals a better leader than its current president might be met with widespread condemnation. Likewise, if the candidate praised an authoritarian as a “strong leader.” Or if he became enchanted by the air kisses the authoritarian floated his way.
But in the era of Donald Trump, all of the above are happening – repeatedly! – and many GOP senators are simply shrugging it off. A few hardcore Trump supporters try to defend it or explain it away. And some senators, perhaps feeling the acute awkwardness for a party that until recently has portrayed Putin as an existential threat to America, seem to just want the whole thing to go away.
“I am not going to go down that path,” the Senate GOP’s No. 2, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), said Thursday when asked by a reporter if he would say that Obama has been better for America than Putin has been for Russia.
Many GOPers took the route of denying that they’d seen the latest Putin-friendly Trump remarks — made at a presidential town hall on Wednesday — or stating that they wouldn’t comment in general.
“I did not have a chance to see that,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).
“I didn’t see it so it’s hard for me to comment,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
“I didn’t watch it,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC).
“I don’t have a comment,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-AR).
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – Trump’s last primary rival who notably withheld an endorsement in his GOP convention speech – told reporters to call his press office when the question was posed to him.
Likewise, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said, “Check the office.”
“I don’t know if we’ve put anything out on that or not,” he said.
While those few Republicans on Capitol Hill who have withheld their support from Trump had no problem distancing themselves from the pro-Putin remarks, a few senators –especially Trump’s most ardent supporters – were willing to defend his praise of Putin, which included bringing up the Russian leader’s poll numbers, and calling Putin “far more” a leader than “our president.”
According to Sen. Jeff Session (R-AL), one of Trump’s earliest Senate endorsers, the GOP nominee was not talking about Putin as “a person.”
“But, as playing the cards Putin has, and Obama playing the cards that we have and the abilities and the strengths that the United State has, a lot of people might think that he’s been more effective than President Obama,” Sessions told TPM Thursday. “I think that’s all he meant to say.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said he agreed with Trump’s assessment.
“President Obama has not been leader in things that we believe in the United States of America. Now I don’t agree with the Vladimir Putin on anything, but you can’t say the guy is not a leader. The guy is a leader,” he told TPM.
Not every Trump-supporting Republican was willing to defend Trump’s remark, however.
“I would never rate Putin over one of our presidents. I don’t care who the president is,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said.
To duck out of commenting on the comparison, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) pointed to Hillary Clinton’s challenge to reporters during a press conference Thursday morning to press Republicans whether the agree with Trump’s remarks.
“I am not going to answer questions that Hillary Clinton wants you guys to ask us,” Scott told TPM.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chair of Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said he didn’t “want to get involved in the rhetoric of a campaign.”
“I don’t want to be the referee” Corker said, before lightly nudging Trump. “We have national interests right now that are very different in many cases than those of Russia, and I think one has to be careful not to succumb to flattery.”
Among the Republicans willing to express disapproval of Trump’s cozying up to the Russian leader were some of the senators who face tough re-election fights in purple states.
“I disagree with Barack Obama on a lot of issues, but Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian. He controls the media. He controls the judiciary. His political opponents end up dead or poisoned or in jail. He’s a thug,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a former Trump primary opponent who is now running to hold on to his Senate seat.
“I don’t think anyone should be praising Mr. Putin,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who is currently polling well ahead of Trump in Ohio in his own re-election campaign.
For the handful of Republicans who have withheld their support of Trump, the latest round of was, in some sense, a validating moment.
“I have made my position known on Donald Trump,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who wrote an op-ed over the summer formally disavowing Trump. “So I am not going to continue to comment on everything that he says.”
Trump critic Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had plenty of criticism of Clinton’s performance at the town hall, but said, “When I hear Trump praise Vladimir Putin, I think, ‘Boy, are you missing the boat here?'”
“Last night was disappointing. I don’t think I have felt so disappointed than in our choices today,” Graham told TPM. “I didn’t see much leadership from her, and when it came to Donald Trump, it was unnerving, his lack of knowledge.”
Lauren Fox contributed to this report.