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Paul Ryan doubts Trump’s efforts to improve Russia relations will work

BY   February 8, 2017 at 7:00 PM EDT
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House Speaker Paul Ryan speaking with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff at the Capitol on Feb. 8.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday he did not think President Donald Trump would succeed in bringing the United States closer to Russia, arguing that the past two administrations tried and failed to improve relations with the country and its leader, Vladimir Putin. Trump has frequently argued the U.S. could benefit from a friendlier relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite the history of tension between the two nations.

“The last two presidents tried this,” Ryan said in a PBS NewsHour interview, referring to former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “I think this president’s trying to do the same thing. I just don’t, personally, think it’s going to work,” he added.

WATCH: The full interview with House Speaker Paul Ryan

Ryan told the NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff that he did not expect Russia to work more closely with the U.S., a goal at the center of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy agenda.

“If we could actually be friendly with Russia, wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Trump said in a campaign speech last summer.

He echoed that sentiment in an interview Sunday on Fox with Bill O’Reilly, saying “it’s better to get along with Russia than not.”

The president’s praise of Putin has placed him at odds with much of the American foreign policy establishment and congressional lawmakers from both parties. Ryan said it was “logical” for a new administration to try and establish a stronger relationship with Russia. Ryan said the question before Trump is whether America can “help steer Russia to being something that doesn’t conflict with our interests.”

“I’m not going to hold my breath on that,” Ryan said.

The House speaker also distanced himself from a comment Trump made in the Fox News interview over the weekend, where he appeared to equate the U.S. with Putin’s authoritarian regime. When O’Reilly called Putin a “killer” in the interview, the president said: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”

Ryan strongly rejected that view.

“I just disagree with any kind of notion of a moral equivalency” between the two countries, Ryan said. “There’s a gaping difference between the United States of America and Putin’s Russia.”

Ryan also addressed Trump’s executive order on immigration during a wide-ranging interview at the Capitol, one day after a panel of federal appeals judges heard oral arguments in a case challenging the order.

LISTEN: Appeals court hears arguments over Trump’s immigration ban

Critics of the order, which temporarily barred refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S., have argued that it was a thinly disguised ban on Muslim immigrants.

Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration as a candidate, though he wavered on that proposal over the course of his campaign.

Since signing the order last month, Trump and his some of his top aides have described it as a travel ban. At other times aides have disputed that description, while also dismissing claims that the policy encourages religious discrimination.

Ryan said he supported strengthening the country’s vetting process for immigrants, and did not think Trump’s executive order was a “Muslim ban.”

“If it were, I would be opposed to it,” he said.

But the speaker acknowledged the outcry over the executive order.

“The rhetoric surrounding it makes it look like it’s a ban on a religion or a religious test, and I think that rhetoric is inflammatory and does not help us,” Ryan said.

Ryan also touched on his relationship with Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former chairman of Breitbart News, a conservative website that has frequently criticized Ryan in the past.

“We’ve had a few meetings. We’ve gotten along fine,” Ryan said of Bannon.

But Ryan drew a distinction between himself and Bannon, who has been criticized for leading a website that has published articles that promote white supremacist and anti-semitic views.

“We’re different kinds of conservatives. That’s something that I can safely say, I think,” Ryan said.

Nevertheless, Ryan said he and Bannon shared a “common cause and purpose” in trying to enact the agenda on which Trump and other Republicans campaigned in the 2016 election.

“We really don’t know each other, but we’re all trying to get this agenda enacted, and that’s why I don’t see a problem here,” Ryan said.

Ryan also said he had a good relationship with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who served with Ryan in the House before serving as the governor of Indiana.

But Ryan said he had not been consulted before Trump signed the executive order on immigration, which caught many lawmakers and federal officials by surprise.

Ryan said he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have spoken with Trump about their legislative plans for the year, in order to communicate their goals and priorities to the president.

Moving forward, “we’re going to have more consulting and make sure that no one’s caught by surprise on things,” Ryan said.

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