President Donald Trump drew fire from Republicans and Democrats alike on Sunday, after he defended a softer stance on Russia, playing down political assassinations and Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Trump -- now two weeks into his four-year term -- showed no signs of yielding to demands from within his own Republican Party to distance himself from President Vladimir Putin, plunging himself into a fresh political firestorm.
“I do respect him. Well, I respect a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get along with them,” Trump said in an excerpt of a Super Bowl interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that will air in full on Sunday.
When pressed in relation to Putin’s alleged links to the extrajudicial killing of journalists and dissidents, Trump said, “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers.”
“You think our country is so innocent?” Trump asked rhetorically.
Trump’s fellow Republicans, including senate leader Mitch McConnell, were quick to criticise the president’s remarks.
“I don’t think there is any equivalency with the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does,” McConnell said.
“He is a former KGB agent, a thug, not elected in a way that most people consider a credible election,” he told CNN.
That criticism was echoed by Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia and advisor to former president Barack Obama, described Trump’s comments as “disgusting.”
“This moral equivalency that Trumps continues to draw between the USA and Russia is disgusting (and inaccurate),” he said on Twitter.
‘Major fight’ against IS
Mainstream Republicans have repeatedly called on Trump to distance himself from Putin, with little impact.
Throughout the election campaign, Trump refused to criticise the Russian leader, saying better relations with the Kremlin would be in the US national interest.
The new president has advocated working with Russia to combat the Islamic State group in Syria.
“If Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all around the world, major fight. That’s a good thing,” Trump told Fox.
Moscow has deployed aircraft, naval assets and troops to Syria, but has so far trained its fire on rebels with the aim of propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
In December, US intelligence agencies went public with their view that Russia conducted a hack-and-release campaign aimed at swinging the US election in Trump’s favour.
Trump’s repeated criticism of NATO -- a common target for Putin -- has only fuelled suspicions that Trump is ready to side with Moscow over allies in Europe.
Across Europe, there are growing concerns that the continent might be wedged between a hostile Russia and a hostile United States.
Trump’s stance on Ukraine has also raised eyebrows. After a call with Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko on Saturday, the White House said the pair addressed “Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russia.”
Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March 2014 and has supported separatists in the east of the country.
Former national security advisor Susan Rice publicly criticised Trump’s framing of the situation.
“This distortion of even recent history is deeply troubling,” she tweeted.
Trump’s Vice-President Mike Pence tried to explain the administration’s approach to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which had flared after Trump and Putin spoke by telephone a week ago.
“We’re watching, and (we’re) very troubled by the increased hostilities over the past week in eastern Ukraine,” Pence told ABC’s “This Week” news program.
During the Trump-Putin call, the Kremlin said the two men had discussed improving economic relations, a potential signal of Trump’s willingness to lift sanctions on Russia.
Asked whether the administration would be willing to ease sanctions while Russia is violating ceasefire agreements, Pence demurred.
“I think that’s a question that will be answered in the months ahead. And it just simply all depends,” he said.
“If we have opportunities to work together, I think the president is looking for an opportunity to begin that relationship anew.
“But make no mistake about it -- those decisions will await action. And they’ll be very dependent on how the Russians respond in the days ahead.”