What started as a seemingly mild admiration between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin took an uncomfortable turn Friday when the GOP White House hopeful seemed to defend the Russian president’s strong-arm tactics – and dismiss his alleged killing of journalists and others who cross him.
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One day after Putin praised Trump, the outspoken Republican candidate told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he was happy with the compliments, even after the show anchors pointed out that Putin has been accused of killing political opponents and reporters as well as his aggressive history of invading countries.
“Our country does plenty of killing also,” Trump responded.
Almost immediately, Republican rival and former Florida governor Jeb Bush blasted Trump on Twitter, writing, “A true freedom-loving conservative wouldn’t be flattered by praise from a despot like Putin.”
He added, “Does Donald even know Putin backs Iran/Assad? Does he care? We must stand up to Putin not coddle him.”
Trump fired back, saying Bush has "embarrassed himself & his family with his incompetent campaign for president."
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He added, "The last thing our country needs is another BUSH! Dumb as a rock!"
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, also a GOP 2016 contender, told FoxNews.com that Trump's latest comments show his "inexperience and naiveté" when it comes to being a statesman.
“He is terrible at explaining his foreign policy and shows it every day he campaigns,” Gilmore said. “Today’s blunder about Putin is just another example.”
During Putin’s annual news conference, the Russian leader mentioned the 2016 U.S. presidential election and noted that if Trump were in charge, the frosty relationship between the two countries would start to thaw.
“He (Trump) says he wants to move to another level of relations, to closer and deeper relations with Russia, how can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it.”
Putin also called Trump “a very colorful character and talented” and said “he’s the absolute leader in the presidential race.”
Trump, during his phone-in interview on MSNBC, returned the compliment, saying, “He’s running his country. At least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.”
Host Joe Scarborough responded, “Again, he kills journalists that don’t agree with him.”
Trump refused to back down, telling FoxNews.com in a statement on Friday, "It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond."
He added, "I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect."
Republican analyst and Fox News contributor Mary Katharine Ham says Trump’s comments illustrate his lack of depth.
“This guy’s just not well versed in what Putin is all about and so there’s this sort of reflexive admiration for a leader but he hasn’t really thought about the implications of that and I think you see a lot of that in Donald Trump interviews,” she said.
On Thursday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, also in the running for a White House bid, took to Twitter to vent about Trump.
“Just when you think it can’t get worse: A leading American candidate for President praising Putin.”
Fox News' Chris Snyder and Brooke Singman contributed to this article.