Trump’s Comments on Putin, Russia Set Off New Wave of Criticism

(Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told a Russian state-sponsored news outlet he was skeptical the Kremlin was interfering with the U.S. election, amid a new round of concerns about his views on Vladimir Putin.

“It’s probably unlikely” that Russia is meddling in the American contest, Trump told host Larry King in an interview published Thursday on RT. “I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out, who knows?”

Trump and his running mate said this week that the Russian president is a stronger leader than U.S. President Barack Obama, provoking Democratic condemnation and prompting some Republicans to distance themselves.

“Vladimir Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Thursday. “Vladimir Putin is violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. It certainly appears that he is conducting state-sponsored cyber-attacks on what appears to be our political system. That is not acting in our interests and that is an adversarial stance and he is acting like an adversary.”

‘Strong’ Putin

Trump said Wednesday at a televised forum about military issues that he doesn’t like the system Putin presides over, “but certainly in that system he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”

“The man has very strong control over a country,” Trump said. Putin has an 82 percent approval rating, Trump said, and “when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?”

Trump said in the RT interview about possible Russian interference, “I hope that if they are doing something, I hope that somebody’s going to be able to find out, so they can end it, because that would not be appropriate at all.”

Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, said Thursday on 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.”

Nobody said Trump’s interview with King would air on Russian TV, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Friday on CNN. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement, “Mr. Trump recorded a short interview with Larry King for his podcast as a favor to Mr. King. What Larry King does with the interview content is up to him. We have nothing to do with it.”

‘Astonishing’ Display

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on Thursday called Trump’s praise of Putin and criticism of U.S. military leaders at the forum an “astonishing” display and said every Republican should be asked if they agree with their nominee.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested Thursday that Trump needs to be “careful” about his judgment on Russia. 

“I think one has to be careful to let flattery influence how you feel about someone,” Corker said on CNN. He said while the U.S. and Russia have some shared interests, such as fighting terrorism, Putin’s “been fairly ruthless.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who briefly competed against Trump for the presidential nomination, was more blunt.

“I think this is the biggest miscalculation since people thought Hitler was a good guy,” Graham said Thursday after Trump’s comments about Putin at the forum. “Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force, and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, he’s a good guy,” Graham said of the Russian leader. 

“This miscalculation by Trump unnerves me to my core, and Hillary Clinton’s performance last night was equally unnerving,” said Graham, who said he may write in Senator John McCain for president.

Public Opinion

The Republican ticket’s assessment of Putin and Obama’s leadership is at odds with a majority of Americans, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll conducted last month. About half of U.S. adults, 51 percent, said Obama was the stronger leader, while 31 percent chose Putin. One in 10 American adults said they had a favorable view of Putin, while 64 percent said they had an unfavorable view.

Accusations that Trump has too friendly a view of Putin aren’t new. His campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, resigned last month amid mounting scrutiny of his political consultation for pro-Russian Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych.

The release of hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee roiled the race this summer and led to the ouster of the party chairwoman. The FBI has high confidence the Russian government hacked Democratic groups and the personal e-mails of political operatives, a person familiar with the findings said last month.

In an interview with Bloomberg News published last week, Putin said the Russian government didn’t hack the DNC but that the breach was a public service.

“Listen, does it even matter who hacked this data?’’ Putin said. “The important thing is the content that was given to the public.”

He accused Trump and Clinton of “both using shock tactics” on the campaign trail and declined to publicly take sides with a preferred candidate.

To contact the author of this story: Kevin Cirilli in Washington at