Cruz's Campaign Co-Chair Rep. King: Putin Better for Bringing 'Hypernationalism'

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans split today over Donald Trump's praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin during an NBC candidates' forum Wednesday night, with Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) former presidential campaign co-chair lauding the Russian ruler for bringing back nationalism.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), though, slammed Putin as a figure who should not be admired while simultaneously not slamming the GOP nominee.

Trump noted during the forum that Putin "does have an 82 percent approval rating" and "I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?"

"If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn’t that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country," Trump said. "Now, it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."

Asked about the comments during his news conference today, Ryan said he "read the little snippet."

"Let me say this about Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests. Vladimir Putin is violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries," Ryan said. "It certainly appears that he is conducting in state-sponsored cyber attacks on what appears to be our political system. That is not acting in our interests and that is an adversarial stance and he is acting like an adversary."

But Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who was Cruz's top surrogate in Congress, told MSNBC that he agreed Putin is a better leader than President Obama.

"Would I think that Gorbachev was a better leader for Russians than Ronald Reagan was for Americans during that era? I would say no," King said. "But if I have to wonder if Putin is a better leader for Russians today than Obama is for Americans, I look at that thing a little differently and I think it's more likely a yes answer to that question and it seems to me that that's what Trump was speaking to when he addressed that issue."

King said he thinks Putin is a better leader "because I've watched as the Russian nationalism has been increased substantially," including "Russian hypernationalism" attached to the Sochi Olympics.

Asked about Russia's myriad human-rights and press-freedom violations, the congressman replied, "It's still Russia, I don't deny that."