Donald Trump and his former secretary of state Mike Pompeo are heaping praise on Vladimir Putin as the Russian president openly moves combat troops into Ukraine.
"Here's a guy who's very savvy," Trump said of Putin in a recent media appearance. "We could use that on our southern border."
For his part, Pompeo, who has touted Putin as "talented" and "savvy" in recent weeks, is the only living former secretary of state who has used the leadup to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to extol the Russian leader while criticizing President Joe Biden. As McClatchy notes, while former foreign policy chiefs like Condoleezza Rice have called Putin "megalomaniacal," Pompeo has praised him as "very shrewd" and "very capable." Russian media outlets have noticed, replaying clips of Pompeo's Putin praise on state TV.
"He is a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts," he told Fox News last month. "He was a KGB agent, for goodness sakes. He knows how to use power. We should respect that."
In another interview last week, Pompeo said, "I have enormous respect for him – I've been criticized for saying that."
By comparison, Pompeo has accused Biden of showing "enormous weakness" and leading "an America on its back, an America that apologizes." In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Pompeo accused Biden of giving Putin a "green light for continued aggression" by not imposing sanctions sooner.
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Biden spent weeks warning that Putin would invade Ukraine amid a troop buildup along the border and threatening crippling sanctions against the Kremlin, an idea that was ridiculed by Trump allies at conservative media outlets like Fox News before Putin ordered troops into eastern Ukraine on Monday. Pompeo, who oversaw the State Department as Trump sought to befriend the Russian leader, has dismissed the importance of Ukraine in the past.
"Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?" he told a reporter while serving in the administration, using "the F-word in that sentence and many others" after becoming enraged over her interview questions.
Pompeo's comments come amid growing speculation that he is planning a 2024 presidential bid. Pompeo, who recently lost 90 pounds and visited key primary states, has sought to increase his media profile, joining Fox News as a contributor and spending $30,000 on media training.
Pompeo argued in a recent interview with Fox News radio that respecting Putin "doesn't mean we should love him, like him, or bend a knee to him."
"But we shouldn't treat him as the JV," Pompeo said. "He is a credible, capable statesman. And that's why the mistake of not putting deterrence in place over the last year has led to this moment that we're suffering from today."
Democrats accused Pompeo of trying to emulate his former boss.
"Four years of watching Donald Trump praise and enable Vladimir Putin has apparently rubbed off on Mike Pompeo," the Democratic National Committee said on Twitter.
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Pompeo is far from the only prominent Trump ally singing Putin's praises while knocking the White House response. Fox News hosts and guests have repeatedly harped on Biden's "weakness" while touting Putin as a "black-belt in judo" who is taking advantage of a "rudderless" administration.
Some have gone even further. Conservative pundit Candace Owens declared on Twitter that Putin is right to respond to the US and its allies "violating previous agreements."
"WE are at fault," she wrote.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has spent weeks downplaying the invasion as Putin amassed troops around Ukraine and questioned why the US was supporting Ukraine instead of Russia.
The rhetoric marks a massive shift in conservative views on Russia after Trump spent years trying to cozy up to Putin. A Gallup poll in 2018 found that 40% of Republicans viewed Russia as friendly or an ally, nearly doubling the rate from four years earlier. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll last month found that 62% of Republicans view Putin as a "stronger leader" than Biden, compared to just 4% who view Biden as stronger.
"Shame on them," John Sipher, a former CIA official who oversaw the agency's Russia operations, told Yahoo News when asked about the poll. "Vladimir Putin hates the United States. He wants to do everything he can to weaken the United States around the world. He's attacked our troops in Afghanistan. He's undercut every foreign policy issue, [including] foreign policy issues that Republicans have supported for years around the world. He's assassinating people around the world…That's incredibly, incredibly myopic, political, silly kind of thinking."
Pollsters have been alarmed by the shift as well. Carl Cannon, the executive editor of the poll aggregation outlet RealClearPolitics, said it was "disturbing" that the number of Republicans who viewed Russia as friendly had doubled during Trump's administration.
"Now, what's happened in four years? Well, nothing good," he told The Hill. "That number shouldn't go up among Republicans, and it has."