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Trump praises Putin's moves as 'savvy'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump has praised Russia's moves in Ukraine. Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin, quote, "smart" after he recognized the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. So how are conservatives in the U.S. responding to the Ukraine crisis?

Well, to answer that question, we're joined now by NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, can you talk a little more about what exactly Trump said?

MONTANARO: Well, it's pretty remarkable. He was on a conservative radio show. He praised Putin's strategy and also claimed that if he was in office, this never would've happened. Here's what he told hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE CLAY TRAVIS AND BUCK SEXTON SHOW")

DONALD TRUMP: I said, this is genius. Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine - of Ukraine - Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful. So Putin is now saying it's independent - a large section of Ukraine. I said, how smart is that?

MONTANARO: It's pretty eye-opening having a former president praise Putin.

CHANG: Yeah.

MONTANARO: Remember, when Mitt Romney was the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, he called Russia America's No. 1 political foe. But on the other hand, you know, we've seen Trump cozy up to Putin for years. He called him a strong leader. He's praised his poll numbers. And he criticized NATO when he was president, which is the very thing that Putin is threatened by now.

CHANG: Exactly. OK, so let's just make this very clear - a former president is explicitly criticizing the current administration during a foreign policy crisis. How has the White House responded so far?

MONTANARO: Well, this is certainly awkward, but, with Trump, not unexpected. You know, White House press secretary Jen Psaki essentially dismissed him, saying this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: As a matter of policy, we try not to take advice from anyone who praises President Putin and his military strategy, which I believe is what happened there.

MONTANARO: Psaki reminded people that Trump in 2018 essentially excused Russia's annexation of Crimea, which was part of Ukraine.

CHANG: Right. OK. But it's not just Trump, right? Like, Tucker Carlson from Fox News also made similar comments.

MONTANARO: Yeah, Tucker Carlson, who's the primetime conservative host, biggest ratings on the network, has basically been asking, why are the American people so against Putin and wanting to help Ukraine? He questions the West's stance that Putin is in the wrong here, says America should be focused on other things. Here he is, for example, from last night's show, playing a game of whataboutism and using a laundry list of conservative criticisms against Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia?

MONTANARO: So he went on, warning of higher gas prices, something Biden has conceded, and went even further down conspiratorial rabbit holes. But again, you can see the playbook here. And it sounds an awful lot like what Russia and Putin do to try and muddy the waters of moral superiority against the West on human rights, inequality, the strength of democracy or any host of other issues. And yet, it's not coming from Russia. It's coming from within the United States.

CHANG: Meanwhile, there are other Republicans who are kind of saying the opposite of what Trump and Carlson are saying - right? - like, that President Biden has been too weak against Putin so far.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, that's been the conflict. There's been some of that. You know, take one hand - people like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, actually been more reserved, saying he thinks Biden and the West have taken some positive steps but could do more. Other traditional hawks, like Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, accuse Biden, like you say, of not having done enough or that it's too little, too late. So there's not a lot of unity in the GOP response.

And there's been a bit of a clash even in conservative media. Either it's like Tucker Carlson saying, hey, Putin's not that bad or Biden is too weak and letting Putin walk all over him. What is clear, though, is, you know - isn't even a question of politics stopping at the water's edge anymore. And that disunity is telling, especially to someone like Putin.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.