WEST PALM BEACH: President Trump said he respects Vladimir Putin, and when told the Russian leader is ‘‘a killer,’’ Trump said the United States has many of them. ‘‘What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?’’ he told Bill O’Reilly in a Fox News interview aired Sunday on the Super Bowl pregame show. Trump has long expressed a wish for better ties with Moscow, praised Putin, and signaled that US-Russia relations could be in line for a makeover, even after US intelligence agencies determined that Russia had meddled in the 2016 US presidential campaign to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. Putin has called Trump a ‘‘very bright and talented man.’’ During Putin’s years in power, a number of prominent Russian opposition figures and journalists have been killed. In the interview, Trump said, ‘‘I do respect him,’’ and then was asked why. ‘‘I respect a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to 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 – that’s a good thing,’’ Trump said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. ‘‘Will I get along with him? I have no idea.’’ O’Reilly then said about Putin: ‘‘But he’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.’’ Trump responded: ‘‘There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?’’ When O’Reilly said he doesn’t know any government leaders who are killers, Trump said ‘‘take a look at what we’ve done, too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes’’ and referenced the Iraq war.
The Kremlin had no immediate comment. Democrats and Republicans took issue with Trump’s comparison of Russia and the United Sttes. ‘‘I don’t think there’s any comparison,’’ said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, on ABC’s ‘‘This Week.’’ She added, ‘‘I really do resent that he would say something like that.’’ The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, distanced himself from the president. ‘‘Putin’s a former KGB agent,” he said. “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. And no, I don’t think there’s any equivalency between the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does,’’ McConnell told CNN’s ‘‘State of the Union.’’ Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview broadcast Sunday that the Trump administration is “very troubled” by an escalation in fighting in eastern Ukraine and is watching how Russia responds in the months ahead to make a determination about US sanctions. Pence’s comments ABC’s “This Week” came a day after Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart discussed concerns about the fighting and talked about bolstering the strategic partnership between their countries, according to a readout of the conversation. “We’re watching,” Pence said on ABC. “And very troubled by the increased hostilities over the past week in eastern Ukraine.” Pence noted that Trump spoke about Ukraine with Putin on Jan. 28. He said the question of whether sanctions on Russia remain in place if it continues to violate the cease-fire in Ukraine will depend on Russia’s actions and the opportunity to work together on matters such as defeating the Islamic State. “It just simply all depends on whether or not we see the kind of changes in posture by Russia and the opportunity, perhaps, to work on common interests,” Pence said.
On Saturday, a top rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was killed along with another person when their car exploded, rebels said, blaming Ukraine’s special services. Ukraine’s military, meanwhile, said three soldiers were killed in shelling. Fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels has escalated over the past week in eastern Ukraine, killing at least 33 people, including civilians, and wounding several dozen. More than 9,800 people have died since the war began in April 2014. The rebels’ Lugansk Information Center reported Saturday that Lugansk People’s Militia commander Oleg Anashchenko died in the explosion, along with an unnamed person. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke late Saturday with Trump, who he said expressed ‘‘deep concern’’ over the escalation. The surge in violence began the day after Putin spoke by telephone with Trump for the first time since Trump entered the White House. Poroshenko has cast the outburst of fighting as an argument for continuing Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. During Saturday’s call, a statement issued by Poroshenko’s office said the two leaders ‘‘noted the urgent necessity of establishing a complete cease-fire.’’ The Ukrainian president thanked Trump for his ‘‘strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.’’ The White House said Trump had a ‘‘very good call’’ with Poroshenko. ‘‘We will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border,’’ Trump said in a statement.