Republicans Seek Distance From Pres. Trump’s Comments on Putin, U.S.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -
President Donald Trump, accompanied by, from second from left, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, White House press secretary Sean Spicer and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, speaks on the phone with with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the Oval Office on Jan. 28. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump has long expressed a desire for improved relations with Moscow, but his latest comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin and the U.S. are leading some fellow Republicans to take a step back from the president — on this issue at least.

Told by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly during an interview that the Russian leader is “a killer,” Mr. Trump said the U.S. has killers, too.

“What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” said the president.

In the past, Trump has praised Putin and signaled that U.S.-Russia relations could be in for a makeover under his leadership, even after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to help Mr.Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

During Mr. Putin’s years in power, a number of prominent Russian opposition figures and journalists have been killed.

In the interview, Mr. Trump says that he respects a lot of people, including President Putin “but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him. He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against IS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world — that’s a good thing,” Trump said, using an acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group. “Will I get along with him? I have no idea.”

Mr. O’Reilly then said about Mr. Putin: “But he’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.”

Mr. Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”

When Mr. O’Reilly said he doesn’t know any U.S. government leaders who are killers, Mr.Trump said “Take a look at what we’ve done, too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes” and then he referenced the Iraq war.

The Kremlin voiced anger over Mr. O’Reilly’s characterization.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, refused to comment on Mr. Trump’s reply, but lashed out at Fox, calling Mr. O’Reilly’s remarks “unacceptable and offensive.”

“We would like to receive an apology to the president from this respected organization,” Mr. Peskov told reporters on Monday, referring to Fox News.

At home, Republicans and Democrats took exception to Mr. Trump’s comparison of Russia and the U.S.

“Putin’s a former KGB agent. He’s a thug. He was not elected in a way that most people would consider a credible election,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The Russians annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine and messed around in our elections. And no, I don’t think there’s any equivalency between the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does.”

Added Sen. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, one of President Trump’s Republican critics: “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 of his cronyism.”

Mr. O’Reilly also asked Mr. Trump to back up his claim that some three million to five million illegal votes were cast in the election. Trump didn’t answer directly, but shifted to assert that immigrants in the U.S. illegally and dead people are on the voter rolls.

“It’s really a bad situation, it’s really bad,” Mr. Trump said.

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the Nov. 8 election. Mr. Trump won the Electoral College vote but lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes to Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Trump recently announced on Twitter that he would call for a “major investigation” into voter fraud. He said during the Fox News interview that he will set up a commission to be headed by Vice President Mike Pence and “we’re going to look at it very, very carefully.”

Asked earlier about Mr. Trump’s promised investigation, Sen. McConnell said he saw no federal role because states historically have handled voter fraud investigations. “I don’t think we ought to spend any federal money investigating that,” he said on CNN.

On other issues, Mr. Trump said in the interview that:

— California’s consideration of legislation to become a statewide sanctuary for people living in the country illegally is “ridiculous.” He suggested withholding federal funding as a possible punishment.

— Plans to enact a complete replacement for the Affordable Care Act could slip into next year. “I would like to say by the end of the year, at least the rudiments, but we should have something within the year and the following year.”

— Living in the White House is “a surreal experience in a certain way, but you have to get over it, because there’s so much work to be done.”