Even by Donald Trump standards, Friday morning was striking. The Republican frontrunner, during an MSNBC interview, was asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin's habit of allegedly invading countries and killing critics. "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader," Trump replied
, "unlike what we have in this country."
Reminded that Putin is accused of ordering the murder of journalists, Trump effectively said he doesn't care. "Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also," the Republican candidate responded.
Trump's rivals, recognizing Trump's ridiculous comments for what they were, saw an opportunity. Marco Rubio chided
his party's frontrunner for cozying up to the Russian autocrat, while John Kasich went quite a bit further
Kasich's campaign sent out a mock press release announcing that Trump had named Putin his running mate. In the fake statement, Kasich's campaign noted that Trump "picked Putin to be his vice president for his strong approach to dealing with dissent, flexible approach to democracy, rule of law and the Constitution, and his willingness to regularly violate other countries' territorial integrity in blatant violation of international law if it suited his aims."
The pushback is hardly unreasonable. Putin has spent years antagonizing the West, and presidential candidates generally talk about their intentions to stand up to the Russian autocrat, not celebrate him.
But confronted with pushback, Trump actually embraced Putin with even greater vigor.
On Saturday, for example, the Republican frontrunner said
about the Russian president, "You know, he feels good about me. I feel, frankly, good about him." Trump has heard the criticism from his rivals, but he insisted, "they're jealous as hell."
The Republican front-runner Donald Trump on Sunday pushed back on the notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has killed journalists, saying that it's "terrible" if it's happened but he hasn't seen proof that it has. "In all fairness to Putin, you're saying he killed people. I haven't seen that. I don't know that he has. Have you been able to prove that? Do you know the names of the reporters that he's killed? Because I've been -- you know, you've been hearing this, but I haven't seen the names," Trump said on ABC.
In the same interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, the candidate added
, "When you say a man has killed reporters, I'd like you to prove it."
MSNBC's report noted that the Committee to Protect Journalists has published the names of journalists killed in Russia: "Since 1992, the CPJ says that 56 journalists of various nationalities have been killed in Russia."
Just on the surface, it's unnerving that a leading American candidate for national office would be sympathetic towards an authoritarian Russian president who's needlessly hostile towards his neighbors and crushes civil liberties in his own country.
But it's the way in which Trump defends Putin with such enthusiasm, even equating Russian policies with U.S. policies, that adds insult to injury. As we discussed
on Friday, if this were a normal campaign in a normal year, this sort of rhetoric would force the typical Republican out of the race.