After telling a room full of military veterans during NBC News' "Commander-in-Chief Forum" that their current commander in chief is a weaker leader than Russian President Vladmir Putin (citing the dictator's high approval rating), Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appeared on the Kremlin-funded news outlet Russia Today. There he defended the former KGB officer from allegations of hacking into the Democratic National Committee — and now many of his most prominent campaign surrogates are following suit.
"I think it's probably unlikely," Trump told RT America's Larry King on Thursday, suggesting that "maybe the Democrats are putting that out. Who knows?" Putin has called the hacking of Democratic officials' email accounts a "public service" but has denied Russian involvement.
In July, Trump had said, "Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
And while Trump has certainly made no secret of his admiration for the Russian strongman — "He’s been a leader far more than our president has been a leader,” he told moderator Matt Lauer on Wednesday -- he's managed to add some of the Republican Party's most conservative voices to the baffling praise of Putin.
“I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said, echoing his running mate on Thursday.
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski also repeated the seemingly Kremlin-assigned talking points: "I think that for his people, Vladmir Putin has been a fighter":
Corey Lewandowski on CNN: "For his people, Vladimir Putin has been a fighter" pic.twitter.com/bfbWikAknq
— Media Matters (@mmfa) Sept. 9, 2016
Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa argued that the Russian leader was a far superior leader to the American president, citing the nationalism incited by the Sochi Olympics.
Of course, Putin extinguished Russia's nascent democracy, persecuted and murdered Russians and embarked on needless wars to assert dominance in the region, but conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt still argued he has "served his country's national interest better" than President Obama:
To repeat: Putin is evil and eating r lunch. POTUS a good man and "leading from behind, red line and JVs" define him https://t.co/5uyfdcYvKm
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) Sept. 9, 2016
To be certain, Trump's overt praise of the Russian strongman is hardly a new tone for modern conservatives, who have for years lauded Putin in an effort to attack President Obama.
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) Sept. 9, 2016