After testy VP debate, Trump rebuffs claim he ‘loves’ Putin

HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — Donald Trump pushed back Wednesday on Hillary Clinton’s accusation that he’s cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin after Mike Pence found himself on the defensive over the issue in the vice presidential debate against Tim Kaine.

Trump offered effusive praise for his running mate but also claimed credit for Pence’s strong performance even as both campaigns acknowledged that the sole vice presidential debate was unlikely to alter the race’s trajectory.

Picking up where Pence left off, he said his relationship with Russia’s leader would be determined by how Moscow responds to strong U.S. leadership under a Trump administration.

“They say Donald Trump loves Putin. I don’t love, I don’t hate. We’ll see how it works,” Trump told a rally outside Las Vegas.

Clinton on Wednesday said Trump has “this weird fascination with dictators.”

“My opponent seems not to know the difference between an ally and adversary,” Clinton said at an evening fundraiser in Washington. “There seems to be some misunderstanding about what it means to have a dictatorship and provide leadership.”

Clinton said Pence “just bobbed and weaved” when he was asked during the debate to defend Trump’s provocative statements “because, after all, trying to defend Donald Trump is an impossible task.”

The billionaire candidate sought to take away an argument that Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, have ramped up in the final weeks of the campaign as they work to portray Trump as dangerous for American interests overseas. While U.S.-Russia relations nosedive over failed diplomacy in Syria, Trump has complimented Putin, calling him a strong leader and even encouraging him to track down Clinton’s missing emails, though Trump later said he was being sarcastic.]

“You guys love Russia,” Kaine said in Tuesday’s debate. “You both have said Vladimir Putin is a better leader than the president.”

In a forceful rebuke, Pence described Putin as a “small and bullying leader,” but blamed Clinton and President Barack Obama for a “weak and feckless” foreign policy that had awakened Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and meddling in the Middle East.

The U.S. and Russia back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war but both are fighting the Islamic State group there. The U.S. cut off talks with Russia about Syria this week after the latest cease-fire collapsed, blaming Russia for failing to fulfill its commitments under the deal.

“I can say this: If we get along and Russia went out with us and knocked the hell out of ISIS, that’s OK with me, folks,” Trump said, using an acronym for the extremist group.

Since last week’s debate, Trump has faced a barrage of questions over a leaked tax return showing he lost more than $900 million in 1995. In turn, he’s sought to reframe his life story as a comeback tale he hopes to recreate on behalf of a faltering nation.

“America needs a turnaround. American needs a comeback. America needs a change. And that’s why I’m running,” Trump said.

Taking the stage in Nevada, Trump took his own victory lap for Pence’s performance, which he called “phenomenal.” So phenomenal, in fact, that Trump said it was “the single most decisive victory in the history of VP debates.”

Pence’s cool demeanor contrasted with Trump’s bluster during his own, top-of-the-ticket showdown against Clinton. However strong Pence’s performance, Trump made clear he considers it a reflection of himself.

“I’m getting a lot of credit, because that’s really my first so-called choice, that was my first hire,” Trump said of Pence.

Even Clinton’s team wasn’t claiming that Kaine had come out on top, despite the chest-puffing that usually follows a political debate. Perhaps former President Bill Clinton most concisely summed up Democrats’ takeaway when he said his wife’s running mate “did just fine.”

The big moment for their running mates behind them, both Clinton and Trump were shifting focus back to each other — and to Sunday’s debate, the second of three showdowns.

Clinton was deep in debate prep Wednesday at her Washington home. She was huddling with campaign chairman John Podesta, top policy aide Jake Sullivan and her debate advisers.

Though Trump was on the campaign trail, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said he was preparing “constantly.” Trump planned his own town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday, in an apparent dress rehearsal for the big event.

With fewer than five weeks until Election Day, Sunday’s debate marks one of Trump’s final chances to show the race isn’t slipping out of his grasp. Widely viewed as the loser of the first debate last week, Trump went into a multi-day tailspin over a decades-old tiff with a beauty queen. New public opinion polls show Clinton’s standing on the rise in nearly all battleground states.

Josh Lederman reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow, Jill Colvin and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

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