Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to identify John Thune as Senate Minority Whip.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (The Hill) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed tensions within the Republican Party over how hard to push back on the aggression and how to respond to former President Trump’s glowing praise of Putin.
The national security crisis has shown Trump to be seriously out of step with GOP leaders on characterizing Putin’s motives and moves, even though Trump looks increasingly likely to run again for president in 2024.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday contradicted Trump’s recent praise of Putin as “smart” and “savvy” by declaring that he views the Russian president as a “ruthless thug.”
Asked about Trump’s comments, McConnell said: “What President Putin did as a ruthless thug is just invade — invaded another sovereign country and killed thousands of innocent people.”
“That’s what President Putin did,” he emphasized.
It’s not the first time that McConnell has indirectly admonished Trump for speaking glowingly of Putin.
McConnell pushed back against the then-president in 2017 when Trump, shortly after taking office, equated the U.S. government with the Kremlin.
“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump told then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.
McConnell told CNN in response: “I don’t think there’s any equivalency between the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does.”
The GOP leader noted that “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 Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) on Tuesday unleashed another salvo at Putin when asked to comment on Trump’s characterization of Putin’s plan to seize parts of Ukraine piece by piece as “genius.”
Asked about Trump’s praise of the Russian president, Thune, who is up for reelection this year, said “Putin is a murderous thug and I think the world is now seeing that.”
“That’s my view of it and I think that’s going to be most Americans’ view of it. That was before and will be for sure after what we’re seeing on display,” he said.
Thune predicted that the invasion of Ukraine will bolster support for NATO, which Trump discussed pulling the United States out of when he was president.
“Obviously people are realizing more than ever now the value of NATO and seeing on full display, again, the true character of Putin,” he said. “A lot of people for a long time have maintained this is what he’s about but I think now the whole world is seeing it in a way that they never have before and coming to the realization that this guy is after one thing and that’s power.”
Trump broke from the Republican Party’s longtime distrust of Russia when he was elected to office. He held a two-hour one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, sending senior officials out of the room. After that meeting, Trump said he believed Putin’s claim that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 presidential election, even though U.S. intelligence agencies found substantial evidence of meddling by Moscow.
The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), then the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lambasted Trump’s joint press conference with Putin as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
Years later, Trump still seems to hold a favorable opinion of Putin, telling an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend: “I like to tell the truth. Yes, he’s smart.”
“The problem is not that Putin is smart, which of course he’s smart, but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb,” he added.
He doubled down on comments made in a radio interview with “The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show” in which he praised Putin’s strategy as “genius” and “pretty savvy.”
Those statements surprised Republican senators who publicly condemned Putin.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted twice to convict Trump on articles of impeachment, said statements defending Putin are “almost treasonous.”
“It just makes me ill to see some of these people do that. But of course they do it because it’s shock value and it’s going to get them maybe more eyeballs and make a little more money for them or their network,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a mainstream Republican senator who usually avoids controversy, took to the Senate floor on Monday to declare that Putin alone is responsible for the crisis in Ukraine.
“Vladimir Putin is a thug and is solely responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. Putin, I condemn him, and he’s even being condemned by his own people in Russia and by a growing alliance around the world,” he said. “There is nothing that justifies Russia invading Ukraine. This is the most significant intrusion from one country to another since the beginning in the 1930s of what resulted in World War II.”
Moran later told The Hill that he felt compelled to speak out.
“Reading history, Churchill in that era is important to me. My dad was a World War II veteran. It stands out. It’s easy to look the other way but that’s a mistake,” he said.
Asked whether he was trying to clear up questions of whether President Biden deserves some blame for the invasion, as Trump has suggested, Moran only said: “Vladimir Putin is responsible for what’s transpiring in Ukraine.”
“I think these are points in time in which these circumstances require us to be united in making sure the blame rests with Putin,” he said.
Not all Republicans are responding to Trump’s comments with forceful denunciations of Putin.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is eyeing a run for president in 2024, said the “corporate media” is distracting from what he views as the Biden administration’s reluctance to impose sanctions on Russia sooner by focusing on Trump.
“I think the corporate media is desperate to drive a narrative. By any measure, Trump’s policies were much, much tougher on Russia than Biden’s policies,” he said, noting sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that Trump signed into law. “Putin did not invade Ukraine throughout that time until Joe Biden became president.”
Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton told Newsmax in an interview that he disagrees with claims that Trump’s policies deterred Putin.
“It’s just not accurate to say that Trump’s behavior somehow deterred the Russians,” Bolton told host Rob Schmitt.
Bolton also disputed the claim that Trump stopped or slowed construction on Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that would carry natural gas from Russia to Germany.
“We didn’t sanction Nord Stream 2. We should have. We should have brought the project to an end. We did impose sanctions on Russian oligarchs and several others because of their sales of S-400 anti-aircraft systems to other countries. But in almost every case, the sanctions were imposed with Trump complaining about it, saying we were being too hard,” he said.