Both Donald Trump and Fox News are in hot water over an interview between the US president and television host Bill O’Reilly broadcasted during Sunday’s Super Bowl pregame show.
The Kremlin demanded an apology from Fox News on Monday after Mr. O’Reilly described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "killer," while Republican lawmakers distanced themselves from President Trump for defending his counterpart in Moscow.
The controversy shows how thorny the subjects of Russia and its leader are in Washington. Trump has praised Mr. Putin and pledged to improve US-Russia relations, which have reached their worst level since the cold war. But such praise and promises come amid allegations that Russia both meddled in the US presidential election to help Trump win and that Putin has ordered the murder of his own opponents.
In his pre-taped interview with Trump, O’Reilly asked the president why he has praised Putin.
"I do respect him," Trump answered. "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. Will I get along with him? I have no idea."
“But he’s a killer. Putin’s a killer,” said O’Reilly, not naming who he thought the Russian president has killed.
Trump said the United States has a lot of killers too: “What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
When O’Reilly said he doesn’t know any US government leaders who are killers, Trump said "take a look at what we've done, too. We've made a lot of mistakes,” referencing the Iraq War.
The Kremlin swiftly responded on Monday to O’Reilly’s characterization of its leader.
"We consider such words from the Fox TV company to be unacceptable and insulting, and honestly speaking, we would prefer to get an apology from such a respected TV company," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
Fox News and O’Reilly did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
In Putin’s 17 years dominating Russian politics, a number of prominent opposition figures and journalists have been killed. Some critics say Putin ordered the killing of opponents, but the Russian leader and the Kremlin have repeatedly rejected those allegations as politically motivated and false.
But a British judge ruled in January of last year that Putin had “probably” authorized the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London.
At the time, Trump also defended Putin, saying he saw no evidence his Russian counterpart was guilty.
"First of all, he says he didn't do it. Many people say it wasn't him. So who knows who did it?" Trump said.
But Trump’s defense of Putin and characterization of US leaders in the latest Fox News interview drew sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
"Putin's a former KGB agent. He's a thug. He was not elected in a way that most people would consider a credible election," the Republican senator from Kentucky said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. "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."
Last month, Republicans also didn’t quite agree with the president’s treatment of Russia. Trump has expressed a willingness to ease Russian sanctions. In Trump’s first phone call with Putin in January, the White House and the Kremlin said the subject didn’t come up. But Republicans were part of a bipartisan effort to ensure Trump doesn’t follow through on his promise.
"I'm absolutely opposed to lifting sanctions on the Russians," Senator McConnell said Sunday. "If anything, we ought to be looking at increasing them."
This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.