MOSCOW — -- Russian President Vladimir Putin offered praise for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump today, telling ABC News, "He's a very colorful person. Talented, without any doubt,” and that he believed Trump was “absolutely the leader in the American presidential race.”
Speaking after his annual marathon news conference, Putin said it wasn’t Russia’s place to determine Trump’s “worthiness” for the presidency, but said he believed Trump wants to “move to a more solid, deeper level of relations” between Russia and the United States.
“How can Russia not welcome that? We welcome that,” Putin told ABC News.
Despite the apparent character recommendation, Putin did, however, seem to question Trump’s populist methods and often inflammatory statements.
“As for his internal political issues and his turns of speech which he uses to raise his popularity, I repeat, it’s not our job to judge them," Putin said.
Even so, Putin’s words were swiftly taken up as an endorsement for a Trump presidency from the inscrutable Russian leader, known for his remorseless foreign policy and his ability to manipulate the Russian public.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, asked by a reporter later whether he thought Putin’s comments qualified as an endorsement, cut short the question to say, “It sounds pretty close.”
Earnest added: “It’ll be up to Mr. Trump to decide whether to accept it.”
Trump himself has repeatedly said he thinks he would get on well with Putin, in part because of what he says is a shared dislike of President Obama.
Putin spoke to ABC News after his traditional end-of-year news conference today, where he took questions from among hundreds of journalists for hours on issues ranging from his favorite historical figure to his plans for Syria.
Nearly 1,400 journalists packed into a Moscow auditorium to try and put a question to Putin, with many holding banners to attract the Russian leader’s attention, some with words like “Pensioners” or “I’m pregnant” written on them. The event lasted over three hours -- the record is close to five -- and is an occasion for Putin to express himself on Russia’s major foreign policy and domestic issues.
Putin spoke about the many foreign crises in which Russia is entangled, commenting on Syria and Ukraine, as well as again lashing Turkey over its shooting down of a Russian bomber last month.
On Syria, Putin said Russian military operations will continue until a political process begins, and echoed comments made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week, that Russia and the United States are moving “in the same direction” over the conflict.
“Strange as it may seem,” Putin said, the Russian and U.S. positions on Syria coincide on many basic points.
Putin often uses the occasion to speak colorfully and, on Turkey, he suggested that the Turkish government had shot down the Russian jet perhaps in order to please the United States, in his words, to “lick the U.S. in a certain place.”
He added he didn’t know whether the United States wanted to be licked or not, to loud laughter in the hall.
Despite his praise for Trump, Putin said Russia was neutral on the U.S. presidential race, saying “whoever the American people choose, we are ready to work with,” adding a sly jab, “we won’t interfere, like they do with us.”
One of the more striking comments came when Putin was asked about the corruption scandal involving FIFA and its former chief Sepp Blatter. Putin said Blatter, who stepped down amid allegations of massive financial misconduct under his administration, deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his “colossal” humanitarian contribution.
Most questions tend to be on expected themes, for which Putin heavily prepares. And many answers are long monologues, with Putin often speaking in detail on specific projects, such as road taxes or Russia’s agricultural sector.
Putin was challenged over corruption among the children of high level officials, presented with specific cases by one journalist, but he swiftly stepped around them, moving on to a lengthy discourse about meeting the concerns of a recent trucker protest.
Another question, about the identity and profession of Putin’s two daughters, was also dodged. Putin, who has fiercely guarded his children from the public eye, said only that the two lived in Russia, and were able to use several languages in their work.
As the hours wore on, the journalists pressed harder to be chosen. When the conference approached its third hour, people, waving their placards, began to jump up and down, shouting their theme to Putin, who finally abruptly closed the discussion.
As he pressed his way out of the room, one journalist from the scrum, using Putin's middle name, could be heard to yell:
“Vladimir Vladimirovich, you can’t just leave us like this!”