NEW YORK • Mr Donald Trump defended his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin at a forum here focused on national security issues, even suggesting that Mr Putin is more worthy of his praise than President Barack Obama.
"Certainly, in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader," he said. "We have a divided country."
The Republican presidential nominee said that an alliance with Russia would help defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and when asked to defend some of Mr Putin's aggressions on the world stage, he asked: "Do you want me to start naming some of the things Obama does at the same time?"
Mr Trump also said he appreciated some of the kind words Mr Putin has had for him. "Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I think I'll take the compliment, OK?"
Mr Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton made back-to-back appearances at an event on Wednesday that sounded the starting gun for the final stretch of the presidential race and offered a potential preview of what are expected to be rollicking debates in the weeks to come.
Mrs Clinton offered herself as a model of "absolute rock steadiness" on foreign policy, and Mr Trump promised to be a disruptive force for improvement, saying that under Mr Obama even the military's generals have been "reduced to rubble".
Mrs Clinton appeared guarded, even stilted, as she navigated tough questions about her use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state and her vote for the Iraq war in the Senate, but Mr Trump showed no such restraint with a series of controversial statements.
He reaffirmed his view that having men and women serve alongside one another is the root of the military's sexual assault problem. He said recent intelligence briefings have convinced him that Mrs Clinton and other Obama administration officials did not heed the advice of experts. And he praised Mr Putin, noting among other things the Russian President's "82 per cent approval rating"•.
Ahead of Wednesday's forum, Mr Trump delivered a speech in Philadelphia in which he called for a robust expansion of US military capabilities and an end to budget sequestration on defence spending.
"As soon as I take office, I will ask Congress to fully eliminate the defence sequester and will submit a new budget to rebuild our military. It is so depleted. We will rebuild our military," he said during the speech at the Union League of Philadelphia.
Mr Trump's address represented his most substantive and comprehensive plan on national security to date - part of an ongoing effort to assuage doubts that he lacks a sufficient understanding of policy issues to assume the presidency.
The forum, broadcast by MSNBC and NBC stations and hosted by Mr Matt Lauer of the Today show, was billed as a discussion of the most important issues facing the nation's next commander-in-chief.