Original Author: Paul Sonne and Michael C. Bender
The setting was an economic conference in far eastern Russia, with discussion of the ruble and domestic investment, but that didn’t stop President Vladimir V. Putin from wading into American politics on Tuesday, branding the criminal cases against Donald J. Trump political persecution and praising the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.
For years, the Russian leader has demonstrated an ability to exploit political divisions within Western nations, often by signaling to conservatives abroad that he is aligned with them in a global fight against liberal values.
Mr. Putin’s remarks on Tuesday, made at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, appeared aimed at lending firepower to the Republican outcry over the prosecutions of Mr. Trump, who has long expressed public admiration for the Russian leader and has helped encourage a sizable Moscow-friendly contingent within his party.
The cases against Mr. Trump — who faces 91 felony counts in four jurisdictions — represent the “persecution of one’s political rival for political motives,” Mr. Putin said. He predicted that the entire affair would help Russia by exposing American domestic problems for the world to see and revealing the hypocrisy of American democracy.
“Given today’s conditions, what is happening is good for us, in my opinion, because it shows the rottenness of the American political system, which cannot pretend to teach democracy to others,” Mr. Putin said, prompting the hall to erupt in applause.
Mr. Putin, whose political adversaries have a way of ending up in prison or worse, said the criminal cases against Mr. Trump also demonstrated who Russia is really fighting against as it prosecutes its invasion of Ukraine. “As they said back in Soviet times, ‘the bestial visage of American imperialism, the bestial grin’” he said.
Mr. Trump offered no public response to Mr. Putin’s remarks, and his aides did not respond to requests for comment.
Unlike in the past, Mr. Putin expressed a measure of resignation about the American posture toward Russia, saying the United States would likely remain anti-Russian, even if Mr. Trump were to return to the White House.
“Though they accused him of special ties to Russia, it was complete nonsense, total bullshit, and he more than anything imposed sanctions on Russia,” Mr. Putin said. “So what to expect in the future, regardless of who is president, is difficult to say. But it’s unlikely anything will change definitively, because the current government has configured American society in such an anti-Russian manner and spirit.”
In the United States, where Republicans are competing for their party’s presidential nomination — with Mr. Trump considered to be far ahead — several leading G.O.P. figures rejected Mr. Putin’s criticism.
“America’s founding principles will always stand the test of time, and Vladimir Putin’s opinion of our constitutional republic holds no value in the United States,” former Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement. “Putin should be more concerned about how quickly his military went from being the second most powerful in the world to the second most powerful in Ukraine.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is a strong supporter of both Mr. Trump and of American aid to Ukraine, said in an interview that the prosecutions taking place against Mr. Trump were “part of democracy.” He said that some parts of the American system were being “run off the rails,” but that the people in charge would have to answer to voters.
“No one in Russia is able to speak against Putin,’’ Mr. Graham said, “because he’ll kill them.”
And former Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican who paid a heavy political price and lost her seat after tangling with Mr. Trump, was succinct: “Putin has now officially endorsed the Putin-wing of the Republican Party,” she wrote on social media.
Mr. Putin’s comments amounted to the latest chapter in a political drama that began when Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, spreading disinformation online and hacking and releasing emails from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign manager of Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
The controversy over Mr. Trump’s seeming sympathies for the Kremlin continued well after he took office in early 2017. Throughout his term, Mr. Trump heaped praise on Mr. Putin, and at one point, during a 2018 summit in Helsinki, professed to trust the Russian leader more than his own intelligence services.
Even after he was defeated for re-election, Mr. Trump clung to that stance. In January, in a post on his Truth Social website, he again suggested that he had been right to trust the Russian president more than U.S. intelligence and F.B.I. “lowlifes.”
Mr. Trump’s assertions at the Helsinki meeting — where, in an unusual breach of protocol, he met with Mr. Putin without any aides present — were roundly criticized by his opponents as unseemly pandering to the Russian leader.
Still, even as Mr. Trump expressed sympathy with Moscow from the White House, he packed his administration with officials who were hawkish on Russia and, in tandem with lawmakers in Congress, continued to promote a foreign policy that punished Moscow for the 2016 interference, pushed through sanctions, and labeled Russia a “great power” competitor.
At his economic forum on Tuesday, Mr. Putin also offered praise for Mr. Musk, calling him a “talented businessman,” when asked about the possibility of private space companies similar to Mr. Musk’s SpaceX arising in Russia.
“When it comes to private business, Elon Musk, he is, without a doubt, an outstanding person, one has to admit,” Mr. Putin said. “But I think everyone would admit that all around the world. He is an active, talented businessman. A lot works out for him, including with the support of the American government.”
That description was reminiscent of the way the Russian leader once described Mr. Trump — “brilliant and talented” — in the early days of the New York real estate mogul’s first presidential campaign.
Mr. Musk is a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, and his purchase of Twitter, recently rebranded to X, has led to a rise in the sort of misinformation and bot activity on a platform that Russia has turned to often to achieve its geopolitical aims.
The billionaire has also involved himself directly in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, at one point proposing a peace solution on Twitter that drew condemnation for echoing Kremlin talking points.
And last week, Mr. Musk attracted renewed scrutiny when a new biography asserted that he had thwarted an attack on Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet in 2022 by refusing to let the Ukrainian military use his satellite network, Starlink, to guide its drones. He said he had disabled Starlink in Crimea long before the Ukrainian attack was planned, and had declined a request to enable it to avoid being complicit in what he said would be a “major act of war.’’