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Lindsey Graham says Trump calling Putin genius was ‘a mistake’

By Ali Zaslav and Ellie Kaufman, CNN

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said on Wednesday that he thinks it “was a mistake” for former President Donald Trump to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a genius.

“I think that was a mistake. I think I know what he was trying to say, you know, going into the Donbas. But, no. Let’s just make it clear, Putin’s not a genius, he’s a war criminal,” said Graham, a close Trump ally.

On Wednesday, Graham introduced a nonbinding Senate resolution that calls for Putin to be held accountable for numerous acts of war, aggression and human rights abuses. The resolution supports a complaint filed by the Ukrainian government against Putin in the International Criminal Court that alleges war crimes in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Graham said he hopes if the US backs the complaint, more nations will follow.

Russia has been hitting civilian targets and residential areas in recent days, according to open source information and US officials. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of targeting civilians, including children, and called for an international investigation into the conflict on Sunday.

The International Criminal Court investigates and tries “individuals charged with the gravest crimes of concern to the international community” including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the court’s website states.

So far, Graham said he’s had some positive conversations with several Senate Democrats about the resolution and noted that he’s starting a “phone blitz” Wednesday calling allies, including the British ambassador, asking them to also back the complaint.

Graham was joined at a news conference unveiling the draft resolution with Rep. Victoria Spartz, a Republican from Indiana, who is a Ukrainian-American, on Wednesday at the US Capitol.

Spartz, who was born in Ukraine, is using her perch in Congress to call for stiffer sanctions, immediate aid and more military resources, saying the Ukrainian people want more weapons — not troops — because they want to fight the Russians themselves. She also is advocating for refugees and drawing attention to the horrors of the humanitarian crisis that is quickly unfolding.

“The whole international community needs to condemn this,” Spartz said. “This is criminal, this is pure killing of individuals.”

Graham said he expects Russia’s strategy to be “scorched earth” as Putin gets “more desperate” and “as you see that happen, we need to get international law organizations on board behind this complaint.”

“The world has let him get away with too much for too long,” Graham added of Putin. “He’s stolen the Russian people blind, he’s murdered Russian citizens to maintain his iron grip on the country.”

Graham said there is no way to end this conflict without intense economic sanctions and arming Ukraine and Eastern European NATO partners.

“To the Russian people, I doubt if you can hear my words, but our fight is not with you, you’re a victim of Putin as much as anyone, maybe more than most, and I just wanted to let you know that we understand the difference between the Russian people and Putin, but we’re going to need your help. In bringing justice to the table, you’re going to have to suffer,” Graham said.

Graham said stopping Putin is critical to sending a strong message to other leaders that may wish to threaten the world’s rules-based order and pose other potential threats to global security.

“If Ukraine falls to Putin, it will set in motion dire consequences for us as a nation,” he said. “China will get the signal that they can take Taiwan. The Iranians will be believe that we have no will to stop their nuclear ambitions. The converse is true. If the Chinese see the world rally around Ukraine and the rule of law being applied to Putin’s war crimes maybe they won’t go into Taiwan.”

He continued, “History repeats itself, for good and bad. We tend to forget the lessons of the past. Appeasement of evil never turns out very well, and we’ve done that for too long when it comes to Putin.”

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CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

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