President Donald Trump, asked by an interviewer Saturday whether he respected Vladimir Putin even though the Russian president is "a killer," seemed to equate Putin's transgressions with past actions by the United States.
"You got a lot of killers," he told Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. "What, you think our country's so innocent?"
Trump has long expressed his admiration for the Russian leader's strength. But his willingness to seemingly draw a moral equivalence to actions by Putin, who has brutally suppressed dissent by eliminating political enemies, led to an eruption on social media.
Many asked how conservatives would have reacted had President Barack Obama, or other Democrats, compared U.S. actions to Putin's.
The exchange surfaced Saturday night in an excerpt from the interview, which is to be broadcast before the Super Bowl on Sunday. What Trump was specifically referring to or whether there was added context that came after his comment was not immediately clear based on the excerpt that was made available.
In the interview, Trump said he respected Putin, adding that he respected "a lot of people, but that doesn't mean I'm going to get along with him."
He continued: "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 — major fight — that's a good thing.
"Will I get along with him? I have no idea. It's very possible that I won't."
Trump's campaign pledge to mend ties with Moscow has raised questions over his administration's commitment to maintaining sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the fighting in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
He said he was willing to work with Kiev and Moscow to resolve a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, after a telephone call with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine on Saturday, Reuters reported.
The call was the first direct contact between the two leaders since Trump's inauguration.
"We will work with Ukraine, Russia and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border," Trump said in a White House statement.
On Thursday, Nikki Haley, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, condemned Russia for its "aggressive actions" in eastern Ukraine.
She said the United States wanted improved relations with Russia but added that U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea would remain in place. She said "the dire situation" demanded "clear and strong condemnation" of Russia's actions.
In another excerpt from the Fox interview, Trump was asked whether it was irresponsible for him to say that 3 million illegal immigrants voted in the election while lacking the evidence to support that assertion.
"When you see illegals, people that are not citizens, and they're on the registration rolls," he said, "look, Bill, we can be babies, but you take a look at the registration, you have illegals, you have dead people, you have this — it's really a bad situation, it's really bad."