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Pence seeks to set himself apart from Trump by speaking out against Putin

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to a crowd during an event sponsored by the Palmetto Family organization on April 29, 2021 in Columbia, South Carolina. The address was his first since the end of his vice presidency. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

(CNN) — The days of Mike Pence defending Donald Trump’s controversial praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin are over, sources close to the former vice president told CNN.

Days after Pence condemned “apologists for Putin” in reference to Trump and other Republicans who have made positive comments about the Russian dictator amid his devastating invasion of Ukraine, the former vice president’s allies said he feels compelled to share his own long-held opinions on the matter, which he refrained from doing publicly during his time as Trump’s second-in-command.

As Pence prepares for a possible White House bid in 2024, the Russian invasion has provided him with a new opportunity to distinguish himself from Trump and underscore the foreign policy chops he’s developed over two decades in government. That separation is also coming at a time when Pence is ramping up his political activities through his Advancing American Freedom group — from raising money for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections and launching TV ads targeting vulnerable Democrats to releasing a “freedom agenda” for conservatives to utilize in upcoming elections.

Pence has been looking for opportunities to denounce what he perceives to be an alarming trend inside the GOP of Trump-aligned figures expressing adulation for the Kremlin leader, according to one person familiar with his thinking.

“When you are vice president, there is an obligation to support the president’s policies and when you disagree, to share those disagreements in private. Now, there isn’t that same constraint, so [Pence] can be more vocal about his viewpoints,” this person said.

Those around Pence say his stepping out on Ukraine reflects that the Indiana Republican has his “own voice” and a distinct political brand from the former president he served.

That was on display last week during his visit to the Ukraine-Poland border with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical international relief agency run by Franklin Graham. And his long-standing party loyalty gave Pence a prime speaking spot at this month’s Republican National Committee donor retreat in New Orleans, where he plainly declared, “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin. There is only room for champions of freedom.”

Though Pence declined to mention Trump by name in New Orleans, his sharp rebuke came on the heels of the former president calling Putin “savvy” and “genius” as the Russian leader launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Those comments have left Trump isolated from other Republican leaders — including many of his own allies — who have refused to echo his praise and instead unambiguously denounced Putin’s actions.

“I do not think anything’s savvy or genius with Putin,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has remained close to Trump since the former President left office, told reporters last week. “I think Putin is evil. He is a dictator. And I think he’s murdering people right now.”

One person close to Pence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said his team felt the donor retreat in early March presented “the right opportunity” for him to address Trump’s comments at a moment where “the vast majority” of Republicans disagree with his take on Putin. This person said Pence will continue to speak out against those who praise the Russian leader within the GOP “to the extent that it continues to be an issue.”

“The nation has coalesced around the idea that Putin is a thug, that he is evil and that what he is doing is reprehensible,” this person said.

Recent polling supports that assessment, including a CNN poll in late February that found overwhelming support among Americans for economic sanctions against Russia, including from 84% of Republicans. A Quinnipiac poll from the same time found that just 6% of Republicans have favorable views of Putin.

“It’s a smart move, because the former president is completely out of step with the party and the country when it comes to Putin, and it’s one of the few issues everyone is willing to push away from Trump on,” said David Kochel, a veteran Republican strategist.

Pence ‘has his own voice’

Although he has taken issue with Trump’s recent positive comments about Putin, Pence has echoed the former president’s criticism of his successor.

In the same speech to GOP donors, Pence accused President Joe Biden of squandering “the deterrence that our administration put in place to keep Putin and Russia from even trying to redraw international boundaries by force.” And like Trump, the former vice president has called on the Biden administration to sanction Russian oil exports.

Still, Pence’s recent comments mark a far cry from how he had typically weighed in as Trump’s running mate and vice president when he would comment on Putin or Russia. For years, as Trump lavished praise on Putin, his fiercely loyal vice president would surface soon afterward to reframe Trump’s comments to make them more palatable.

For instance, when Trump said during a 2016 campaign appearance that Putin had been “a leader far more than” then-President Barack Obama, Pence quickly insisted it wasn’t an endorsement of the Russian autocrat. Addressing the matter during his vice presidential debate against Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Pence recast Trump’s comments as “an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,” while describing Putin as “small” and “bullying.”

Then, when Trump appeared to equate U.S. actions with Putin’s authoritarian regime during a Fox interview early in his presidency, Pence assured Americans that Trump was not drawing “a moral equivalency.”

“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump said during the interview in response to a question about why he respects Putin even though the Russian leader is a “killer.”

And when the then-president sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence officials during their 2018 joint news conference in Helsinki, Finland — suggesting at the time that he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would have interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election despite widespread evidence to the contrary — Pence rushed to defend the “historic trip” and lauded Trump’s commitment “to put the prosperity and security of America first.”

Pence allies say he has always bristled at praise of Putin inside the GOP but is now in a place where he can share long-held opinions publicly without breaching decorum. So far, these allies said Pence hasn’t received any blowback for crossing Trump on the Putin matter and noted that he has been in regular contact with a range of foreign policy and national security experts as he decides how and when to weigh in on the Ukraine-Russia crisis.

“Mike Pence does have his own voice, his own opinions and his own views,” said one of the people close to the former vice president.

Ukraine is not the first area where Pence has sought to draw a contrast with Trump. At the top of the list are their divergent views of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and Pence’s refusal to halt certification of the 2020 election. In recent weeks, Pence has been increasingly vocal in defending his refusal to delay the counting of electoral votes, as Trump and some of his top allies pressured him to do.

Speaking at the Federalist Society Florida Chapters conference near Orlando last month, Pence called Trump’s efforts to challenge the results of the election “un-American” and warned against conservatives who continue to insist that the vice president can alter an election. He has periodically said that he and Trump will never see “eye to eye” on Jan. 6.

Afterward, Pence fielded calls from donors, Republican lawmakers and top conservative leaders eager to privately applaud him.

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