DONALD Trump has expanded on his jaw-dropping defence of Russian president Vladimir Putin in a Fox News interview.
The US President’s comments, released in an excerpt ahead of the interview with Bill O’Reilly being aired, have stunned Americans and been condemned across the political spectrum.
Mr Trump excuses Mr Putin’s reputation for ruthlessly disposing of people who oppose his dictatorial rule, saying “you think our government’s so innocent?”
O’Reilly follows up the extraordinary statement, saying: “I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers in America”.
Mr Trump says: “Take a look at what we’ve done to ….” before trailing off and then adding: “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve been against the war against Iraq from the beginning.”
O’Reilly begins to say that mistakes are different but Mr Trump interrupts saying: “We’ve made a lot of mistakes okay, but a lot of people were killed so a lot of killers around, believe me”.
Earlier an excerpt of the interview, which was aired just before the Super Bowl later today, began causing controversy.
Here’s the exchange, which was promoted ahead of the interview airing.
O’Reilly: “Do you respect Putin?”
Trump: “I do respect him, but …”
O’Reilly: “Do you? Why?”
Trump: “Well I respect a lot of people, 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 ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world, that’s a good thing. Will I get along with him? I have no idea.”
O’Reilly: “But he’s a killer though. Putin’s a killer.”
Trump: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
Several of Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans have condemned his remarks, saying there is no moral equivalence between the United States and a regime known for killing its political opponents.
“I don’t think there’s any equivalency between the way that the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“When has a Democratic political activist been poisoned by the Republicans, or vice versa? We are not the same as Putin,” Senator Marco Rubio added on Twitter.
The strongest repudiation came from Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who was scathing during an interview with ABC.
“Has the US ever made any mistakes? Of course. Is the US at all like Putin’s regime? Not at all,” Mr Sasse said.
“The US affirms freedom of speech. Putin is no friend of freedom of speech. Putin is an enemy of freedom of religion. The US celebrates freedom of religion. Putin is an enemy of the free press. The US celebrates free press. Putin is an enemy of political dissent. The US celebrates political dissent and the right for people to argue, free from violence, about places where our ideas are in conflict.
“There is no 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 defence of his cronyism. I don’t understand what the president’s position is on Russia.
“Putin is a mess. He’s committed all sorts of murderous thuggery, and I am opposed to the way Putin conducts himself in world affairs, and I hope that the president also wants to show moral leadership about this issue.
Mr Trump’s eyebrow-raising comments come after a major critic of Mr Putin, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was hospitalised with “multiple organ failure”. Mr Kara-Murza had previously claimed to be poisoned in 2015. “None of the medical staff can explain the reason for his current condition. Both last time and once again now,” his lawyer said in a statement.
Mr Kara-Murza is an anti-Putin activist calling for free and open elections.
That follows the high-profile killing of defecting spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died from radiation poisoning in London in 2006.
‘IT’S A BAD SITUATION’
O’Reilly also asked Trump to back up his claims that some 3 million to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the election.
Trump didn’t answer directly, but asserted that immigrants in the US illegally and dead people are on the voter rolls. “It’s really a bad situation, it’s really bad,” Trump said.
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the November 8 election. Trump won the Electoral College vote but lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes to Clinton.
Trump recently announced on Twitter that he would call for a “major investigation” into voter fraud, but senior administration officials said last week that plans for Trump to take some type of executive action on the issue had been delayed.
Trump said in 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.”
McConnell, meanwhile, said he saw no role for the federal government because states historically have handled voter fraud investigations.
“There’s no evidence that it occurred in such a significant number that would have changed the presidential election, and I don’t think we ought to spend any federal money investigating that,” McConnell told CNN.
“I think the states can take a look at this issue.”
On other issues, Trump said California’s consideration of legislation to create a statewide sanctuary for people living in the country illegally is “ridiculous.” He suggested withholding federal funding as possible punishment.
He also suggested plans to enact a 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,”
Trump described living in the White House as “a surreal experience in a certain way, but you have to get over it, because there’s so much work to be done.”
The Trump administration on Thursday revised recent US sanctions that had unintentionally prevented American companies from exporting certain consumer electronic products to Russia. The change allows companies to deal with Russia’s security service, which licenses such exports under Russian law. The products were not intended to be covered by the sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Dec. 29 after US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential election. The White House denied it was easing sanctions.