Skeptical McConnell distances from Trump on Russia, travel ban

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellParliamentarian deals setback to GOP repeal bill OPINION | How Democrats stole the nation's lower federal courts Flight restrictions signal possible August vacation for Trump MORE (R-Ky.) has labored mightily to avoid criticizing President Trump, but two weeks into the new administration, it’s getting harder to downplay their differences.

On Sunday, McConnell told CNN he disagreed with Trump’s view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, questioned the president’s claim of massive voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election and cautioned against the administration going too far with restrictions on travel from predominantly Muslim countries.

McConnell also chided Trump, albeit tacitly, for lambasting a federal judge who ruled against his executive order temporarily banning visitors from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Syria from entering the U.S.

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The majority leader is adept at deflecting questions and sticking to his talking points when it comes to possible differences with the president.

He prefers to emphasize their shared goals, including the repeal of ObamaCare, comprehensive tax reform and broad regulatory reform.

But Sunday on “State of the Union,” McConnell highlighted several splits with the Trump administration.

He disagreed most pointedly with Trump comparing Russia’s human rights record with that of the United States.

McConnell flatly rejected the comparison on CNN.

“Putin is a former KGB — he’s an agent, he’s a thug,” McConnell said.

“The Russians annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine and messed around in our elections. No, I don’t think there is any equivalency between the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does.”

It was a stark contrast from what Trump told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly in an interview set to air Sunday before the Super Bowl.

Trump said he respects Putin, although he cautioned that does not mean he’ll get along the Russian leader.

When O’Reilly asserted that “Putin is a killer,” Trump responded, “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” he observed.

This didn’t sit well with McConnell, who on Sunday said, “I obviously don’t see this issue the same way he does.”

McConnell also questioned Trump’s claim, expressed in a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House earlier this month, that Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonObama intel chief wonders if Trump is trying to make 'Russia great again' Trump Jr., Manafort reach deal to avoid public hearing next week House Intel panel to interview Kushner amid Russia probe MORE won the popular vote last because of massive and widespread voter fraud.

The president claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally and has called for a “major investigation” into voter fraud.

McConnell told CNN’s Jake Tapper that election fraud occurs but “there is no evidence that it occurred in such a significant number that would have changed the presidential election.”

Furthermore, he doesn’t want to spend any federal money on it, undercutting Trump’s demand of a major probe.

“I don't think we ought to spend any federal money investigating that. I think the states can take a look at this issue,” McConnell said.

He noted that states are in the process of cleaning up voter roles by purging the names of people who have died or are ineligible to vote.

The GOP leader made it clear he’s unhappy that Trump singled out a federal judge for scorn and criticism after ruling against his executive order on immigration and refugees.

Trump on Saturday ripped Judge James Robart of the Western District of Washington, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, as a “so-called judge” and mocked his ruling as “ridiculous.”

Robart found that Trump’s directive barring visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries and freezing the acceptance of refugees was not supported by a compelling government interest.

Another Senate Republican also made clear he’s not comfortable with Trump’s lashing out at another branch of government.

“We don’t have any so-called judges, just real judges,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who did not support Trump during last year’s election, told ABC’s “This Week.”

McConnell said while it’s natural to feel disappointed with a court decision, “I think it is best to avoid criticizing judges individually.”

Trump’s tongue lashing was reminiscent of the 2016 campaign, when he blasted a judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University as biased because of his Mexican-American heritage. It was an uncomfortable moment for many Republicans who were asked to respond to the comments.

McConnell also expressed some hesitation Sunday over Trump’s executive order on refugees and visitors from the seven countries.

While he said it’s important to thoroughly vet refugees and other travelers from countries with active terrorist cells, he cautioned against going too far.

“Proper vetting is important to the American people. But there is a fine line here between proper vetting and interfering with the kind of travel or suggesting some kind of religious test. And we need to avoid doing that kind of thing,” he said.

McConnell disavowed Trump’s proposal early in the presidential campaign to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the United States, calling it at the time “completely and totally inconsistent with American values.”

The GOP leader expressed no interest in moving legislation to codify Trump’s order, saying it should be up to the courts to decide and noting the administration is already adhering to the court order temporarily blocking it.

McConnell and Trump disagree on other areas, as well.

McConnell is a free trader who supported negotiating a wide-ranging trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump has already ordered the United States to withdraw from the TPP and wants to strike bilateral trade pacts instead.

McConnell has questioned the need for a $1 trillion infrastructure spending package, a centerpiece of Trump’s presidential campaign. McConnell in December warned against what he called a “trillion-dollar stimulus.”