Rubio says Trump needs to be ‘clear-eyed’ about who Putin is

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 10: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asks a question as FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers testify before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence heads testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio said Sunday that he supports President Donald Trump interacting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but said Trump should be aware of Putin’s human rights record and zero-sum approach to the US-Russia relationship.

“I don’t have a problem with the President of the United States interacting with the president of the Russian Federation,” Rubio said. “They’ve got a lot of nuclear weapons, and so we do need to interact with them. That is separate from the question of whether or not we should be clear-eyed about who Putin is.”

Rubio, who made his comments in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said he regretted Trump’s handling of his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, last week, where he appeared to side with Putin over the US intelligence community on alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.

Trump clarified his remarks after returning to the United States, saying that after reviewing a transcript and video of his statements, he realized he had misspoken in a key sentence about Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

“The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ ” he said. “Sort of a double negative.”

Referring to Trump’s claim later that he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would” at the summit, Rubio said, “I’m glad he came back the next day and sort of walked that back.”

Rubio said he did not “know what to believe” about Trump’s “would” versus “wouldn’t” remarks, but he reiterated that he was glad Trump tried to walk back the remark.

“I don’t think it was a good moment for this administration, and I disagreed with it,” Rubio said. “I know he came back the next day and said something to clean that up. And I’m glad that he did it, you know? I’m glad that he cleaned that up because it left, if you watched that video, it leaves the impression that my intelligence community says one thing, Putin says another, I’m siding with Putin, and that was a bad impression to leave behind.”

He added, “I don’t like the way this was handled.”

Rubio counts himself as one of Putin’s chief critics in Washington, and in his interview Sunday, he accused Putin of perpetrating war crimes and killing political opponents. He said that because of Trump’s lack of political background, there was at times a clash between Trump’s approach to Putin and the more hardline approach other politicians might have delivered in his position.

“I don’t have any doubt that President Trump is aware of the things Vladimir Putin has done,” Rubio said. “I’m not sure his rhetoric reflects that, but his policies do.”

In his assessment of Putin, Rubio said he did not believe the Russian leader expected a better relationship with the United States and was more “interested in gaining advantage at our expense and to his benefit.”

Rubio said that where he agreed with the Trump administration’s approach, including arming Ukraine, he would support it, and where he and other lawmakers could influence the administration, including on election security, they would.

Rubio pointed to congressional efforts on Russia, including a bill from him and Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen to address election security and Russia that recently picked up some additional support in the Senate as lawmakers continue to warn of future attempts by Moscow to interfere in US elections.

Rubio: Real possibility of civil war in Nicaragua

In addition to his pointed remarks about Russia, Rubio also anticipated that there could be further sanctions from the US on Nicaragua, given recent violence in the Latin American nation.

“I think you’re going to see, and there’s already work being done, to set a series of sanctions against individuals and entities in Nicaragua,” Rubio said.

The US announced new sanctions earlier this month against three Nicaraguan individuals as heated protests and violence have ratcheted up.

Rubio, calling Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega an “old man” and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, “crazy,” said, “There is no future with them in power.”

He went on to say the United States has the responsibility and authority to get involved.

“The possibility of a civil war in Nicaragua is real,” Rubio said. “It would trigger a migratory crisis. It would undermine our anti-drug efforts in the region. There is a direct national security interest for the United States in seeing democracy and stability in Nicaragua.”