- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2015

GOP front-runner Donald Trump on Friday condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sordid record of killing journalists and political opponents, but not without hailing the head of state as a “strong leader.”

The real estate mogul was being interviewed over the phone by MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on the “Morning Joe” show when he was asked to respond live on-air to reports that the Russian president had applauded Mr. Trump the day before as being “very talented.”

“Sure, when people call you ‘brilliant,’ it’s always good. Especially when the person heads up Russia,” Mr. Trump told the news team.

“Well, I mean, it’s also a person who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?” Mr. Scarborough fired back.

The billionaire businessman quickly shrugged off concerns over Mr. Putin’s human rights abuses and quickly began comparing him to U.S. President Obama.

“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader,” Mr. Trump replied. “Unlike what we have in this country.”

When told once against that Mr. Putin’s 15-year streak atop the Russian Federation has been marred by attacks on the media and other opponents of his administration, Mr. Trump responded by claiming there’s “a lot of killing going on” internationally.

“I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” Mr. Trump replied. “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on. A lot of stupidity. And that’s the way it is. But you didn’t ask me [that] question, you asked me a different question. So that’s fine.”

“I’m confused,” responded Mr. Scarborough. “So I mean, you obviously condemn Vladimir Putin killing journalists and political opponents, right?”

“Oh sure, absolutely,” Mr. Trump said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists claims that 36 reporters have been murdered in Russia since 1992, including 23 while Mr. Putin was either president or prime minister, and that more than half of the journalists who were murdered during the last 13-years had professionally reported on corruption, the watchdog said.

A similar group, Reporters Without Borders, has listedRussia as being among the countries with the worst press freedoms during that same span. The sudden death earlier this year of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a devout critic of Mr. Putin’s policies, rekindled human rights concerns abroad, especially in tandem with the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the invasions of eastern Ukraine in the months surrounding the Kremlin critic’s death.

Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, weighed in on the MSNBC exchange through his Twitter account, writing: “Important distinction: thug Putin kills journalists and opponents; our presidents kill terrorists and enemy combatants.”

On Thursday, Mr. Putin told reporters in Russia that Mr. Trump was “a bright and talented person without any doubt,” as well as “an outstanding and talented personality.”

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