Republican hawks took to Twitter and the Sunday political shows to attack President Donald Trump for his latest comments defending Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime.
Pressed by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly about how Trump could respect a “killer” like Putin, Trump said, “We got a lot of killers [too]. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
“I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers in America,” O’Reilly retorted.
“Well, take a look at what we’ve done too,” Trump said. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been against the war in Iraq from the beginning.”
First released Saturday in a preview of O’Reilly’s interview that premiered on Fox’s Super Bowl pregame show Sunday afternoon, Trump’s comments drew scorn from the bellicose corners of the Republican foreign policy establishment. Several members of Congress took issue with Trump suggesting a moral equivalency between the United States and Putin’s Russia. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted Sunday morning, hewing close to the American exceptionalism creed he professed in his 2016 presidential campaign.
Newly elected Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney also took to Twitter Sunday to push back.
And in an interview Sunday with Newsday, New York Republican Rep. Peter King said, “No American president should ever talk that way.” He continued that Trump’s comments were like “comparing Roosevelt with Stalin or Churchill with Hitler.”
Trump’s past praise for and coziness with the Russian president has repeatedly been a source of tension with the Republican Party that he now leads. Just four years ago, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe” and portrayed President Obama as naive for pursuing a “reset” with the country. Now, Democrats in Congress are rattling every saber they can find at Russia, and Republicans in Congress are either quietly accepting Trump’s fancy for Putin or, like Rubio, criticizing it.
Vice President Mike Pence made the rounds to television news studios in the nation’s capital Sunday morning to defend the president. Pence told CBS’s John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” that Trump’s comments shouldn’t be interpreted as establishing any moral equivalency between the two countries. Dickerson then repeatedly pressed Pence on whether he believed the United States was morally superior to Russia, but Pence refused to give a direct answer.
Sunday’s volleys between the president and members of his own party may be a preview of what’s to come as the relationship between Trump and Putin becomes increasingly scrutinized and consequential over the coming months.
Multiple congressional investigations are underway into Russia’s interference in last fall’s presidential election. Violence has been escalating on the Ukrainian border with pro-Russia forces. And NATO troops are bulking up defenses in Eastern Europe to deter Russian military incursions. If Trump shows deference to Putin on any of those issues, many Republicans will almost certainly show their disapproval in more than just a tweet.
In the part of the interview with O’Reilly that aired Sunday, Trump also looked ahead on his domestic policy agenda, including Obamacare and tax cuts. Trump had previously said he would like to see his predecessor’s health law repealed and replaced within weeks of his inauguration, but with O’Reilly, he left open the possibility that the legislative process could stretch into 2018. He did not guarantee that tax reform would happen this year, either even though its passage would not require any Democratic votes.
The only definite prediction Trump made was about Sunday evening’s Super Bowl matchup between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. Trump, who is close with Patriots owner Robert Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady, said he thought the New England team would win by eight points. “You have to stick up for your friends, right?” he said. Right.