Fox News’ Sean Hannity gave Donald Trump multiple opportunities to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, and the former president repeatedly declined to do so.
Trump has faced widespread backlash for calling Putin’s tactics a work of “genius” last month as the authoritarian leader prepared to invade Ukraine. His rhetoric met resistance from some high-ranking Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said on Wednesday that Putin was not a genius but an evil dictator.
Hannity gave Trump an opportunity on Thursday to walk his comments back, two weeks after Putin launched a brutal war that has killed hundreds of civilians.
“You came under some fire when you said that Vladimir Putin is very smart,” Hannity said during an interview with Trump. “I think I know you a little bit better than most people in the media, and I think you also recognize he’s evil, do you not?”
Trump declined to say and instead tried to argue about the semantics of his praise for the dictator.
“Well, I was referring to the fact that he said this is an independent nation, talking about Ukraine, and I said that … this was before there was any attack. He’s calling it an independent nation,” Trump said, adding that “this doesn’t seem to be the same Putin that I was dealing with.”
“But I will tell you, he wouldn’t have changed if I were dealing with him. He wouldn’t have changed,” he added.
Trump then criticized President Joe Biden’s nuclear posture during the crisis in Eastern Europe and described how he would have handled it if he were in charge.
Biden has declined to match Putin’s heightened nuclear alert status, avoiding an escalation of warnings between the two superpowers.
“Look, Biden, every time he gets up he says they are a nuclear nation. He should say we are a nuclear nation,” Trump said.
“And, you know, I rebuilt our whole nuclear arsenal, stronger, bigger, better than ever before,” he added. “He should say, ‘We are a nuclear nation and we don’t want war… and we don’t want to wipe out Russia.’”
He condemned the violence as “a crime against humanity” and said it “has to end” now, though he also noted that if it comes to an end as things stand, it’s “going to look like a big loss” for Putin.
Hannity later circled back to the backlash against Trump for his praise of Putin, giving him another chance to retract those comments.
″You’ve often quoted to me Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War.’ Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Is that how you viewed Vladimir?” the Fox News host said. “Did you view Vladimir Putin and people like President Xi and Kim Jong Un and the Iranian mullahs as enemies that you needed to keep close?”
Again, Trump offered no condemnation for the authoritarian leader.
“I got along with these people. I got along with them well. That doesn’t mean they are good people. It doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that I understood them and perhaps they understood me,” Trump said. “Because they knew there’d be a big penalty.”
Hannity had already tried to explain away Trump’s praise for Putin on Ukraine, arguing on Feb. 24 that it was “taken out of context.” Donald Trump Jr. also chimed in on the subject this week, suggesting his dad’s cozying up to dictators was a ploy to “play these guys.”
As president, Trump routinely alienated US allies, including Canada and Germany, while praising autocratic leaders like Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.