Donald Trump has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and says he is praying for Ukrainians, marking a sharp shift from earlier comments in which he praised the “savvy” way Vladimir Putin laid the groundwork for the invasion.
Trump delivered his remarks at a conservative political conference in Florida a few hours after the US and allies announced sweeping new sanctions.
The sanctions will kick some Russian banks off the main global payments systems and limit the ability of Russia’s central bank to support the rouble.
Earlier this week, Trump irked some Republican party members by describing Putin’s tactics in Ukraine as “genius” and “pretty savvy”, adding that the Kremlin strongman would never have dared make a military move if had remained in the White House.
“By the way, this never would have happened with us. Had I been in office, not even thinkable. This would never have happened,” Trump said.
Addressing the adoring crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, Trump expressed empathy for Ukrainians and praised President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, calling him “brave” as he stays on in Kyiv.
Earlier in the week Trump said Zelenskiy “didn’t know what he was doing.”
“The Russian attack on Ukraine is appalling. We are praying for the proud people of Ukraine. God bless them all,” Trump told the CPAC audience.
Trump also used his pulpit at CPAC, which touts itself as the world’s largest conservative gathering, to bash Democratic President Joe Biden, saying Putin took advantage of his being “weak”.
Trump linked the invasion to the US 2020 presidential election, which he continues to insist was “stolen”.
Blaming Joe Biden
“As everyone understands, this horrific disaster would never have happened if our election was not rigged and if I was the president,” he said, to which a woman in the packed audience responded: “You are the president!”
Trump also cited Russia’s invasion of Georgia under George W Bush and Crimea under Barack Obama before declaring: “I stand as the only president of the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country.”
Trump did address his past praise of Putin, saying he was correct that Putin was smart because he was outfoxing world leaders. “The real problem is that our leaders are dumb, dumb. So dumb,” he said.
In an interview released earlier on Saturday, Biden mocked Trump’s comment that Putin is a “genius”.
“I put as much stock in Trump saying that Putin is a genius than when he called himself a stable genius,” Biden said.
During the four-day CPAC conference in Orlando, Florida, which closes on Sunday, conservatives have repeated the line that Putin decided to invade Ukraine because he knew Biden was “weak”.
Republican politicians have broadly steered clear of lauding Putin, however, and hot-button domestic issues, like mask mandates, have featured far more heavily than foreign policy.