Donald Trump’s defense of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in his televised CNN town hall left some Republicans on Capitol Hill again treading carefully at the risk of finding themselves at odds with the frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination.
Among them: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
In the town hall Wednesday night, Trump declined to call Vladimir Putin a war criminal, despite voluminous reports of atrocities such as torture and the use of rape as a tool of war by Russians in Ukraine.
He also declined to say which side he supported, in comments reminiscent of his “very fine people on both sides” observation about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
“If you say he’s a war criminal, it’s going to be a lot tougher to make a deal to make this thing stopped,” Trump said at the town hall. “If he’s going to be a war criminal, people are going to grab him and execute him. He’s going to fight a lot harder than he’s fighting under the other circumstance. That’s something to be discussed at a later day.”
The International Criminal Court at The Hague has issued an arrest warrant for Putin, citing “the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children.”
Trump also declined to say he supported Ukraine or Russia, even though Russia’s main international support these days comes only from other authoritarian regimes in China, Iran and North Korea.
“Russians and Ukrainians, I want them to stop dying,” he said. Previously, Trump has said he would have considered not objecting to Russia retaining some portion of Ukrainian territory as a way to broker peace, an outcome many experts believe would be satisfactory to Putin.
McCarthy hedged Thursday when asked if he was concerned about Trump’s comments, saying Putin was responsible for “atrocities” but not criticizing Trump.
“I think we have been very clear about the atrocities that Russia and Putin have presented to this world. I think we have been very clear in our votes as well. I think we lead with exactly what we’ve been doing,” McCarthy said.
“I think we have been very clear about the atrocities that Russia and Putin have presented to this world. I think we have been very clear in our votes as well. I think we lead with exactly what we’ve been doing.”
McCarthy’s tone differed from May 1, when asked during a trip to Israel whether he would support ending U.S. aid to Ukraine.
“I do not support what your country has done to Ukraine. I do not support your killing of the children either,” McCarthy replied to a Russian reporter.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has gone beyond calling Russia’s actions in Ukraine war crimes or crimes against humanity, labeling them “genocide” as well.
“I had a hearing on war crimes with the [Ukrainian] prosecutor general. Bucha [Ukraine] grave sites, killing and raping little girls to death, bombing maternity hospitals, mobile crematoriums, I mean, it’s pretty bad stuff,” McCaul told HuffPost Thursday.
But McCaul stopped short of criticizing Trump for his comments.
“I know a lot of his top advisers advise him why Ukraine is important. I can’t speak for him,” McCaul said.
“I know a lot of his top advisers advise him why Ukraine is important. I can’t speak for him.”
Some Republicans are sympathetic to Trump’s view, though it’s unclear how big a proportion of the party they make up. A letter to President Joe Biden in April warned him against “unlimited” arms supplies garnered the signatures of only 19 GOP lawmakers out of 222 Republican House members and 49 senators.
Willingness to stick up for Ukraine is more pronounced among Senate Republicans. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) said Thursday he would not support Trump to be the GOP’s presidential nominee, in part because of Trump’s stance on Putin.
“President Putin and his government have engaged in war crimes. I don’t believe that’s disputed,” Young told CNN.
“I think President Trump’s judgment is wrong in this case.”