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McConnell on Trump's Russia Remarks: No Moral Equivalency Between U.S., 'Thug' Putin

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this morning that he didn't want to "critique every utterance" from President Trump, but disagreed that U.S. actions were on par with that of Putin's Russia.

Fox released Saturday early excerpts from a Super Bowl Sunday interview of Bill O'Reilly questioning Trump. O'Reilly asked the president if he respects Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I do respect him," Trump replied. "Well, I respect a lot of people. But that doesn't mean I'm going get along with him. He's a leader of his country. I say it's better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world major fight, that's a good thing. Will I get along with him? I have no idea."

"He's a killer, though," O'Reilly interjected. "Putin is a killer."

"You got a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers," Trump said. "What, you think our country is so innocent?"

Asked about the equation of U.S. actions with the Kremlin on CNN this morning, McConnell said, "Well, Putin is a former KGB. He's agent. He's a thug."

"He was not elected in a way that most people would consider a credible election. The Russians annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, and messed around in our elections," the Senate leader added. "No, I don't think there is any equivalency between the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does."

McConnell added that he's "not going to critique the president's every utterance, but I do think America is exceptional."

"America is different. We don't operate in any way the way the Russians do. I think there is a clear distinction here that all Americans understand. And, no, I would not have characterized it that whole way," he said. "...I obviously don't see this issue the same way he does."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CBS this morning that there's "no question in my mind that America is morally superior to Russia" and he knows "exactly what [Trump] meant by those comments yesterday."

"He respects Vladimir Putin because he believes that the leaders of countries deserve to get treated with respect. He wants to be treated with respect around the world, and he believes Vladimir Putin should be," Christie said. "But it doesn't mean that he agrees with him. It doesn't mean that he won't fight him, and it doesn't mean that he won't stand up to him."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told ABC "you cannot compare any leaders in our country to what Vladimir Putin has done."

"This is a man and a regime that has taken down a passenger plane in Ukraine, killing hundreds of people," she said, referring to the 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. "This is a regime that has been known to poison human rights activists, including a recent incident, where someone is laying in a coma in a hospital."

Putin opponent Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, who was a close associate of murdered Kremlin critic and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, is vice chairman of the pro-democracy group Open Russia and fell ill last week with symptoms of poisoning for the second time since 2015.

"This is a regime that, we believe -- 17 intelligence agencies in our own country have said -- has tried to influence our own election," Klobuchar added. "I don't think there's any comparison. And I really do resent that he would say something like that."

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said on ABC he didn't "know what the president is trying to do with statements like" the ones in the O'Reilly interview.

"But let's be clear. Has the U.S. ever made any mistakes? Of course. Is the U.S. at all like Putin's regime? Not at all," Sasse said.

"Truth affirms freedom of speech. Putin is no friend of freedom of speech. Putin is an enemy of freedom of religion. The U.S. celebrates freedom of religion. Putin is an enemy of the free press. The U.S. celebrates free press. Putin is an enemy of political dissent. The U.S. celebrates political dissent and the right for people to argue free from violence about places or ideas that are in conflict," the senator continued. "There is no moral equivalency between the United States of America, the greatest freedom living nation in the history of the world and the murderous thugs that are in Putin's defense of his cronyism. There's no moral equivalency there."

Sasse called Putin's Russia "a great danger" and called the Russian leader "a mess."

"He's committed all sorts of murderous thuggery," he added. "And I am opposed to the way Putin conducts himself in world affairs and I hope that the president also wants to show moral leadership about this issue."

Asked about Trump's comments on CBS, Vice President Pence said "what you heard in that quote was a commitment to explore the possibility of starting anew and looking for common cause with Russia and with President Putin."

"I simply don't accept that there was any moral equivalency in the president's comments," Pence said. "Look, President Trump, throughout his life, his campaign and in this administration, has never hesitated to be critical of government policies by the United States in the past. But there was no moral equivalency. What you heard there was a determination to attempt to deal with the world as it is."

Pressed for a yes-or-no answer on whether he believes the United States is morally superior to Russia, Pence replied, "I believe that the ideals that America has stood for throughout our history represent the highest ideals of humankind."

"I think it is without question... that American ideals are -- are superior to countries all across the world. But, again, what the president is determined to do, as someone who has spent a lifetime looking for deals, is to see if we can have a new relationship with Russia and other countries that advances the interests of America first and the peace and security of the world."