WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's campaign on Thursday reaffirmed its extraordinary embrace of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, signaling a preference for the leadership of an authoritarian adversary over that of America's own president, despite a cascade of criticism from Democrats and expressions of discomfort among Republicans.
"I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country," said Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana on CNN, defending Trump by echoing his latest praise for the Russian leader, offered Wednesday night in a televised candidate forum.
Hillary Clinton excoriated Trump for asserting that Putin is a better leader than President Barack Obama, saying it was "not just unpatriotic and insulting to the people of our country, as well as to our commander-in-chief, it is scary."
She seized on Trump's assertion in the televised forum that Putin's incursions into neighboring countries, crackdown on Russia's independent news media and support for America's enemies were no more troublesome than Obama's transgressions. She said it showed that, if elected, Trump would be little more than a tool of Putin's.
"It suggests he will let Putin do whatever Putin wants to do, and then make excuses for him," Clinton told reporters Thursday morning at the White Plains, New York, airport, stepping up her criticism as polls indicate the race has tightened — and as Trump continues to say things rarely heard before from a major party presidential nominee.
In the Wednesday forum, which was moderated by Matt Lauer of NBC and was devoted to national security issues, Trump twice denigrated America's generals; suggested he would fire the country's current military leadership; and insinuated — vaguely, unverifiably and without evidence — that the intelligence officials who recently gave him a classified briefing about threats to the United States had said that the president had flouted their advice.
Clinton delighted at the chance to change the subject from her uneven performance at the forum, under treatment by Lauer that many observers believed was harsher than his handling of Trump. Her campaign could barely contain its wonder that her opponents were now allowing her to chain Trump to a Russian leader widely seen as hostile to the United States.
In the forum, Trump said of Putin that he had been a leader "far more than our president," and he praised Putin's firm grip on Russia.
And after Lauer highlighted Putin's record, Trump shot back, "But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?"
Such talk represents a remarkable break from the traditional boundaries of American political speech. And, as with his past provocations, Trump once again left his fellow Republicans scrambling to defend what many effectively conceded was indefensible.
"Vladimir Putin is an aggressor who does not share our interests," Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Thursday in Washington, accusing the Russian leader of "conducting state-sponsored cyberattacks" on "our political system."
Ryan was referring to the hack of the servers of the Democratic National Committee, which U.S. officials believe was conducted by Russian intelligence services. At the NBC forum, Trump disputed Russia's guilt, telling Lauer the culprits were not definitively known.
Trump went even further Thursday, saying in an interview on the Kremlin-backed Russia Today network that "it's probably unlikely" the Russians were responsible for the hack and that Democrats "are putting that out." (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) In a fashion that would have been unheard-of for a Republican during or immediately after the Cold War, Trump has made improved relations with the Kremlin a centerpiece of his candidacy. And Russia has been a subplot of the campaign that Tom Clancy and John le Carre together may have been unable to conjure — complete with the apparent Russian hack of U.S. political parties, a looming threat that Russian hackers may try to tamper with electronic voting machines, and Putin's unsubtle preference for Trump over Clinton.
While railing against Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries, Trump has regularly praised Putin's government: He has hailed Putin's tight control over Russian society, has hinted that he may not defend the NATO-aligned Baltic States formerly in Moscow's sphere of influence, and for a time employed a campaign chief with close ties to Ukraine's pro-Russian forces.
Most extraordinarily, Trump used a news conference over the summer to urge the Russians to hack into Clinton's emails to find what messages the FBI might have missed.
It is all rather confounding — unless Trump is simply eyeing postelection business interests — for congressional Republicans, who evince little doubt that Moscow was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee. On Thursday, they volunteered the sort of hard-edge criticism of Putin more typical of conservatives discussing an adversary of the United States.
"He's a thug," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "He's a dangerous and bad guy."
But Rubio, who is running for re-election, has gotten behind Trump since withdrawing from the presidential primary, and declined to say whether Trump's comments were out of bounds because he did not want to "be a commentator."
Even Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., perhaps Trump's closest ally on Capitol Hill, appeared ill at ease when pressed about Trump's statements.
Asked whether political combat should stop at the water's edge, Sessions paused for nearly 10 seconds before saying, "I've tried to adhere to that line pretty assiduously, but less and less does that get adhered to in the modern world."
For their part, Democrats were at once dumbfounded over Trump's latest verbal excess, gleeful over a fresh opportunity to portray him as unpresidential and irritated that he had not been not pressed more aggressively by Lauer.
Mingling outside the Capitol, the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, two of the longest-serving and bluntest-speaking members of Congress, found themselves uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
"If Rangel or Reid had said that, 15 years ago or five years ago, we would be through," Reid said of Trump's Putin praise. "Can you imagine somebody running for president who has acknowledged publicly that he likes Putin better than Obama? How about that one?"
Rangel interjected: "A communist leader that's a potential enemy!" (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) Other Democrats, though, saw Trump's comments about Putin as a bonanza, given the scrutiny of Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state. Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York called Trump's suggestion that Russians should hack into Clinton's emails "verbal treason" and said his "diarrhea of the mouth" would be his undoing.
Democrats and even some Republicans said the fury would have been unceasing on the right had a Democratic presidential candidate held up the leader of a hostile power to deride a Republican president.
Scholars could recall few parallels in modern U.S. history. Only the campaign of Henry Wallace, who ran as the Progressive Party nominee in 1948, was so willing to align itself with Russia, historian Richard Norton Smith said.
"We've become to some degree numbed to this, saying, 'That's just Trump,'" he observed. "And that's dangerous."
In her news conference Thursday, Clinton invoked the right's most venerated president, from whose library Pence appeared on CNN. "What would Ronald Reagan say about a Republican nominee who attacks American generals and heaps praise on Russia's president?"
After the news conference, Clinton flew to North Carolina to rally African-American voters — and seized the chance to again assail Trump's comments.
"He prefers the Russian president to our president," Clinton said in Charlotte.
But Trump showed no sign of regret. His aides did not reply to an email asking if the campaign wanted to clarify the candidate's comments about Putin, and deemed Clinton's assault "the desperate attacks of a flailing campaign sinking in the polls."
Trump himself appeared mostly focused on media coverage of the NBC forum. "Wow, reviews are in — THANK YOU!" he wrote on Twitter.