Trump told Fox News in an interview set to air prior to the Super Bowl on Sunday that he respects Putin.
"I do respect him," Trump told Fox News’ Bill O'Reilly.
When O'Reilly said, "Putin is a killer," Trump responded, "A lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country's so innocent?"
Republicans were quick to rebuke Trumps statement Sunday morning. “I don’t think there’s any equivalency,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “America is exceptional. There’s a clear distinction here.”
"When has a Democratic political activists been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa? We are not the same as #Putin," said the senator, who is a outspoken critic of the Russian president.
Similarly, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that while "there may be a broader context" to the point Trump was trying to make, "Let's be clear. Has the U.S. ever made any mistakes? Of course. Is the U.S. at all like Putin's regime? Not at all."
"There is no moral equivalency between the United States of America, the greatest freedom-loving nation in the history of the world and the murderous thugs that are in Putin's defense of his cronyism," Sasse said.
In a tweet, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, called Trumps statement “deeply troubling and wrong.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate who has been a critic of President Trump, responded on Twitter that “America has been a beacon of light and freedom. There is no equivalence with the brutal regime of Vladimir Putin.”
David French, a writer for the conservative magazine The National Review, suggested that if a Democrat had made the same comment as Trump they would have been quickly condemned by conservatives.
Bill Kristol, the founder and editor at large of another right-leaning magazine The Weekly Standard who has been a critic of Trump, speculated whether the willingness of some Republicans to "excuse Trump" might be "eroding."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to come to Trump’s defense on “Face the Nation” but said “there is no question in my mind that America is the moral leader of the world.”
The Republican added that Trump’s exchange was just the president’s way of volleying back and forth with O’Reilly. “When he is being challenged, he likes to challenge back,” Christie said. “But the fact of the matter is, I know President Trump believes that America is morally superior to Russia.”
On the left, George Takei, an activist and actor famous for his role in "Star Trek," tweeted: "When the press said Putin's a killer, it was adorable to see how Trump stood by his man and criticized America instead. That's true love."
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said on ABC's "This Week" that she resents Trump’s statement. "I really do resent that he would say something like that,” Klobuchar said. “You cannot compare any leaders in our country to what Vladimir Putin has done.”
And Rep. Adam Schiff of California accused the president of "belittling" the United States.
But some Democrats raised serious concerns about Trump’s possible business connections to Russia and made calls for an investigation.
“I want to know what the Russians have on Donald Trump,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” “I think we have to have that investigation by the FBI into his financial, personal and political connections to Russia, and we want to see his tax returns so we can have a truth in the relationship between Putin, whom he admires.”
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., echoed Pelosi’s call to raise questions about Trump and Putin.