By Alexandra Ulmer
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) -Former President Donald Trump condemned on Saturday Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and said he was praying for Ukrainians, switching tone from his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week.
Trump’s remarks at the CPAC conservative gathering in Florida came hours after the United States and allies announced sweeping new sanctions that would kick some Russian banks off the main global payments systems and limit the ability of Russia’s central bank to support the rouble.
Addressing an adoring crowd at an event that touts itself as the world’s largest conservative gathering, Trump used his speech to bash Democratic President Joe Biden and again hint at a possible run for president in 2024.
Trump had irked some Republican party members by describing Putin’s actions in Ukraine, where cities have been pounded by Russian artillery and cruise missiles, as “genius” and “pretty savvy.”
Trump expressed empathy for Ukrainians and this time praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, calling him “brave” as he stays in Kyiv, the capital.
“The Russian attack on Ukraine is appalling. We are praying for the proud people of Ukraine. God bless them all,” Trump said.
Trump said that Putin took advantage of Biden’s being “weak” to attack Ukraine. He also linked the invasion to the U.S. 2020 presidential election, a fixation of his, again falsely saying that fraud was to blame for Biden’s victory.
“As everyone understands, this horrific disaster would never have happened if our election was not rigged and if I was the president,” he said, to which a woman in the packed audience responded: “You are the president!”
Trump has not confirmed whether he will run for president again in 2024, but has hinted at it heavily recently and did so again on Saturday.
“On November 2024, they (Democrats) will find out like never before. We did it twice, and we’ll do it again. We’re going to be doing it again, a third time,” Trump said.
Democratic lawyer Marc Elias tweeted that Trump’s words should trigger a “series of legal requirements related to his spend and disclosures.”
Trump’s fundraising operations have raised a cash pile of more than $100 million and he is criss-crossing the country holding rallies.
TRUMP BLAMES BIDEN, WORLD LEADERS
Trump also cited Russia’s invasion of Georgia under George W. Bush and Crimea under Barack Obama before declaring: “I stand as the only president of the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country.”
Trump did address his past praise of Putin, saying he was correct that Putin was smart because he was outfoxing world leaders and NATO. “The real problem is that our leaders are dumb, dumb. So dumb,” he said.
The Democratic National Committee criticized Trump’s comments. “The defeated former president took the stage at CPAC to double down on his shameless praise for Putin,” it said in a statement.
In an interview released earlier on Saturday, Biden mocked Trump’s comment that Putin was a “genius.”
“I put as much stock in Trump saying that Putin is a genius than when he called himself a stable genius,” Biden said.
Conservatives at the CPAC conference in Orlando, Florida, which ends on Sunday, have repeated the line that Putin decided to invade Ukraine because he knew Biden was “weak.”
Republican politicians have broadly steered clear of lauding Putin, however, and hot-button domestic issues, such as mask mandates, have featured far more heavily than foreign policy.
Earlier on Saturday, J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for an Ohio U.S. Senate seat, said the American political class was fixated on the Ukraine conflict to the detriment of problems closer to home, such as record crossings at the Mexican border.
“I’m sick of being told that we have to care more about people 6,000 miles away than we do people like my mom, and my grandparents, and all the kids who are affected by this crisis,” said Vance, a venture capitalist and author.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey in Washington, D.C.; Writing by David MorganEditing by Leslie Adler)