Over the weekend, President Donald Trump continued to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin against accusations of political murder and human rights abuses. On Sunday, some prominent members of Trump’s own party started publicly face-palming again.
In a preview clip from Trump’s pre-Super Bowl interview with Fox News’s Bill O'Reilly, President Trump reaffirmed his respect for the often bloody manner in which Putin conducts business.
"I do respect [Putin], but I respect a lot of people,” Trump told the Fox host. “That doesn't mean I'm going to get along with him."
When O'Reilly described Putin as a "killer," Trump replied, "There are a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What do you think, our country's so innocent?"
Trump’s comments are, in a way, old news. Trump has been loudly praising Putin’s thuggish style of governance since the presidential campaign. During an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe in December 2015, Trump defended Putin’s killing of journalists, saying, “at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country [with Obama],” and went on to say that “our country does plenty of killing, too.”
The Republican Party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald J. Trump, and party leaders of course are largely falling in line. (Playing the “what if President Obama did this” game is a useless exercise at this point.)
Vice President Mike Pence hit the Sunday show circuit this weekend to assure people that Trump was “not in the least” drawing a moral equivalence and, as Pence said on NBC’s Meet the Press, that “President Trump has been critical of American policy in the past…[and will] continue to be candid with the American people.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “I’m not going to critique every utterance of the president” even though “I obviously don’t see this issue the same way he does.”
Harsher criticism of the president’s ongoing Putin apologia came from the usual conservative suspects.
“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 where our ideas are in conflict,” Ben Sasse, a Republican senator for Nebraska who was very public about his anti-Trump view last year, said on ABC’s This Week. “There is no moral equivalency between the United States of America—the greatest freedom-loving nation in the history of the world—and the murderous thugs that are in Putin’s defense on his cronyism. There’s no moral equivalency there.”
“[Trump’s] statement suggesting moral equivalence between Putin's Russia and the United States of America is deeply troubling and wrong,” Congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted on Sunday morning.
“If you're a conservative suddenly okay with moral equivalence between the US and a dictatorial country, please apologize to Barack Obama,” conservative blogger Erick Erickson chimed in.
And Sen. Marco Rubio, Trump’s onetime primary opponent who never misses an opportunity to express outrage at Russian abuses and crimes, also tweeted his displeasure
“We are not the same as #Putin,” the senator from Florida insisted.
If any of this is anything more than performative remains to be seen. For instance, Cheney was a Trump endorser during the campaign, and strongly agrees with the president on a multitude of issues including the virtue of institutionalized torture to fight terrorism. Rubio called Trump a “con artist” last year, and declared that Trump could not be trusted with the nuclear codes and arsenal. Rubio ended up standing firmly by Trump in the general election fight against Hillary Clinton, and voted to hand him the nuclear launch codes, anyway.
Every passing week makes it clearer and clearer that the GOP is Trump’s party. The president’s stated admiration for Putin’s brutality continues to emerge as just another mild inconvenience to party leaders.