WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump has defended his embrace of Mr Vladimir Putin, saying good relations were important but claiming no one had been tougher on Russia.
"If we got along with Russia, that would be a good thing not a bad thing," Mr Trump said on Tuesday, some days after congratulating the veteran Russian leader on his controversial re-election as president and suggesting they meet at the White House.
"Just about everybody agrees with that, except very stupid people," Mr Trump said, adding that "probably nobody's been tougher to Russia than Donald Trump".
He also renewed a long-standing call for better relations with Moscow despite a series of conflagrations and crises, including Russian meddling in the US presidential election and the poisoning of a former Russian double agent on British soil with a nerve agent.
Mr Trump's latest comments came as he hosted leaders from the three Baltic states, which have had a torrid history with their larger neighbour Russia.
Standing side-by-side with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis, Mr Trump doubled down on his courtship of Moscow.
"I think I could have a very good relationship with President Putin," Mr Trump said.
"It's a real possibility that I could have a good relationship. It's possible I won't."
Mr Trump has faced criticism at home for his attitude towards Mr Putin, particularly by non-Republicans who suspect his campaign was aided by Moscow.
The three Baltic leaders came to the White House with what officials described as concrete suggestions to deter Russian aggression.
Mr Trump has spooked many in states that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by cosying up to Mr Putin and by questioning American commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.