House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who’s tried to walk a tightrope between alienating Donald Trump and being seen as catering to the former president, publicly disagreed with him Thursday on whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin is a dictator.
McCarthy’s response came after Trump posted a video on his social media site late Wednesday decrying “simple-minded” criticisms of Putin and his country, suggesting that “Russia and the Russian people” should be treated with more respect by U.S. leaders.
Trump’s remarks were largely aimed at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his potential rival for the GOP presidential nomination.
Earlier this month, DeSantis said the U.S. should not become “further entangled” in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, describing it as a “territorial dispute.” When the governor’s statement was criticized as being soft on Russia, DeSantis then tacked back in an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan, saying Putin was “basically a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons.”
That characterization didn’t seem to sit well with Trump.
“Calling Russia ‘a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons,’ or calling Putin, quote, [an] authoritarian gas station attendant with some legacy of nuclear weapons from the old Soviet Union, is exactly the kind of simple-minded thinking that has produced decades of failed diplomacy and ultimately war,” he said in his video.
While Trump has often defended the Russian leader in the past — notably in 2017 by deflecting criticism of Putin’s alleged killings of political opponents by asking, “You think our country’s so innocent?” — his unwillingness to use the term “authoritarian” runs counter to bipartisan consensus and international opinion on Putin.
Trump argued that mocking Russia’s nukes, or implying Putin should be punished for alleged war crimes after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him, only raises the chances of nuclear conflict.
“Putin’s authoritarian. President Xi [Jinping of China] is authoritarian. And I’m very concerned with where I see the world right now. It looks like 1936.”
“Fundamentally, it shows a lack of depth, a lack of seriousness and a lack of sophistication on the subtleties and complexities of foreign policy,” Trump said. “You can’t do certain things and end up with peace.”
At a press conference Thursday touting the passage of a bill to boost domestic energy production, several lawmakers said an increase in U.S. energy would undermine authoritarians in Russia and China who leverage their country’s oil and gas reserves.
When the House speaker was asked by HuffPost to reconcile that view with Trump’s remarks, McCarthy said: “I haven’t seen what you’re talking about, but Putin’s authoritarian. President Xi [Jinping of China] is authoritarian. And I’m very concerned with where I see the world right now. It looks like 1936.”
McCarthy also noted that Russia had arrested American reporter Evan Gershkovich overnight on espionage charges and, during a separate interview with Fox News, called on Putin to release him.
“This is a journalist who has a right to do their job,” the speaker told Fox, adding that the arrest “shows how deadly” the Russian leader is.
McCarthy said what Putin “is doing is against every realm of the rule of law.”