Trump’s Putin Embrace Draws Ire, Praise of Pennsylvania Voters

  • Nominee says Russian is stronger leader than President Obama
  • Republican leaders criticized Trump’s backing for Putin

Trump Says Putin Looks at Clinton and He Laughs

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s effusive praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin gets under Sue Cook’s political skin.

Cook, a retired math teacher who lives in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, said Trump’s statements that Putin is a stronger leader than U.S. President Barack Obama and his calls for a new partnership with the authoritarian leader confirmed her decision not to vote for Trump.

“His embrace of Putin rubs me the wrong way,” Cook said in an interview. “If he’s so enamored with Putin, maybe he should move to Russia. Then the two of them could grandstand together.” Cook said she’s voting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

But Cook’s bluntly negative assessment isn’t shared by everyone in eastern Pennsylvania, even among the area’s Russian-speakers and armed-forces veterans -- segments where Trump’s statements might be seen to have particular resonance.

His comments found support at the Petrovsky Market in northeast Philadelphia, a grocery store that caters to the area’s heavy concentration of Russian and eastern European immigrants.

‘Become Friends’

“It’s good that he’s decided to become friends with Putin,” said Leo Borts, 54, who works at the store, whose signage includes offering “entertainment from Russia.”

“We need friends in that part of the world. We don’t want to go back to the Cold War,” the Russian immigrant said. “I think Mr. Trump is a better choice than Hillary Clinton.”

Vladimir Sirota, a 57-year-old nurse born in the Ukraine, added that closer ties between the U.S. and Russia cut down the chances of a war of any kind between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers. “It also makes it easier for us to join together to fight the terrorists who are plaguing our world,” added Sirota, who also will vote for Trump.

Polls indicate that those voices may remain a minority. A Bloomberg Politics national poll in August found 69 percent of likely voters were bothered by Trump’s praise of Putin.

GOP Leaders

Republican leaders, such as Senator Lindsey Graham and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have noted Putin’s tendency to steamroll democratic principles in his efforts to restore Russia’s image as a world power make him a poor leadership example.

“Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, he’s a good guy,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said of Putin Sept. 8. “This calculation by Trump unnerves me to my core.”

To be sure, Trump supporters dismiss opponents’ claims that the billionaire real-estate developer and TV personality has grown too cozy with the Russian strongman and argue renewed ties with the world’s largest country by area may pay diplomatic dividends.

“Didn’t we just get involved with some deal with the Russians where we are working together to stop the fighting in Syria?” Eddie Tepper, an 84-year-old retired printer and U.S. Air Force veteran from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, said in an interview. “Maybe all this talk between Trump and Putin made ’em more willing to work with us.”

Ceasefire Plan

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sept. 9 that the U.S. and Russia have come up with a plan to bring a ceasefire to fighting in Syria between rebels and those loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Under the agreement, fighting would be halted at sundown on Sept. 12.

Trump was the target of criticism last week when he dismissed reports the Kremlin may be seeking to interfere with the U.S. election by launching hacking attacks on U.S. computer systems designed to tally votes in several states.

“It’s probably unlikely” that Russia is seeking to intervene in the American election, Trump told host Larry King in an Sept. 8 interview on Russian television network RT. “I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out, who knows?”

Trump said earlier last week that while he doesn’t like the system Putin presides over, “certainly in that system he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”

‘The Compliment’

“The man has very strong control over a country,” Trump said at a televised forum about military issues Sept. 7. Putin has an 82 percent approval rating, Trump said, indicating he welcomed Putin’s support. “When he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?”

It’s those kind of statements that make Ron Harmon shudder. Harmon, a 42-year-old professional gambler and registered Republican, has never voted for a Democrat in a presidential contest until this race. “It’s scary that people think Donald Trump is fit to be president,” said Harmon, who lives in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia. He’s voting for Clinton. “I can’t believe the race is as close as it is.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released Sept. 8 showed Clinton leading Trump in Pennsylvania by 5 percentage points, 48 percent to 43 percent, narrowing Clinton’s 10 point-margin in August polling.

Cook, the retired math teacher, said her Polish and Ukrainian heritage make her naturally suspicious of Putin, given his expansionist actions in Eastern Europe over the last several years. Cook’s maiden name is Downarwoicz and she lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Oxford Circle.

But Trump’s decision to line up with Putin was driven more by his membership in the “old boys’ club” than his sympathy for the Russian leader’s territorial aims, Cook said. “You don’t see him putting his arm around women who run countries, do you now?” she said.

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