Trump defends praise of Putin even as he calls Zelensky ‘a brave man’

Washington (CNN):Former U.S. President Donald Trump defended his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday while also calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “a brave man” amid Russia’s deadly invasion of his country.

“He’s a brave man, he’s hanging in,” Trump said of Zelensky in remarks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, even as he declined to back away from complimenting Putin as “smart.”

“The problem is not that Putin is smart, which, of course, he’s smart,” Trump said. “The problem is that our leaders are dumb… and so far, allowed him to get away with this travesty and assault on humanity.”

“Putin is playing [President Joe] Biden like a drum and it’s not a pretty thing to watch,” he continued.

The former President has repeatedly praised Putin in the days since Russian troops crossed into Ukraine and began launching rocket strikes against the country’s capital of Kyiv. His comments on Zelensky come days after he lavished praise on Putin, calling the Kremlin leader “genius” and “savvy” in a radio interview. Those remarks were the latest of many instances where the 45th President has approved of, or admired, authoritarian rulers. In addition to Putin, Trump has previously made positive comments about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But other Republicans have steered clear of admiring the Kremlin leader. In back-to-back appearances at CPAC, rumored GOP presidential hopefuls echoed Trump’s criticism of the Biden administration but stopped short of complimenting Putin like the former President has.

Though Trump tempered his praise of the Kremlin leader with sharp condemnations of Putin’s decision to “ruthlessly attack” Ukraine, he saved his strongest criticism for Biden and elected Democrats.

“The Russian attack on the Ukraine is appalling. It’s an outrage and an atrocity that should never have been allowed to occur,” Trump told the conservative gathering in Orlando. “I have no doubt that President Putin made his decision… only after watching the pathetic withdrawal from Afghanistan.” Thirteen U.S. service members were killed in a bombing at the Kabul airport during the Biden administration’s withdrawal this summer from Afghanistan, which has since fallen under Taliban control.

The former President, who was impeached for the first time during his presidency after using security assistance for Ukraine as bait to pressure the country’s officials to investigate his political rival — also tried to take credit for arming Ukraine in his remarks Saturday.

“I gave Ukraine the javelins that everyone is now talking about and millions of dollars of other military equipment. The Obama administration gave them blankets,” Trump said.