(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump stood by his widely criticized praise of Vladimir Putin this week in a speech to conservative voters, even as Western nations tightened sanctions on the Russian leader for his continued assault on Ukraine. 

In a speech Saturday to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, the former U.S. president tried to put into context comments earlier this week that were largely panned, when he called Putin’s moves ahead of the Ukraine invasion “savvy” and “genius.”

“Yesterday, reporters asked me if I thought President Putin was smart. I said, ‘of course he’s smart,’ to which I was greeted with ‘Oh, that’s such a terrible thing to say.’ I like to tell the truth. Yes, he’s smart,” Trump said at CPAC. “The problem is not that Putin is smart, which of course he’s smart, but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb.”

More about Russia’s war on Ukraine

Trump called Putin “pretty smart” earlier this week during a closed-door fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Video of the comments was circulated online.

He also praised Putin’s strategy as “genius” and called the Russian leader “very savvy” in an interview with the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show on Tuesday.

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Trump’s speech Saturday was delivered to a standing-room-only crowd at the conservative conference filled with his most fervent supporters. Many in the audience wore red “Make America Great Again” hats and other Trump-themed apparel. The CPAC marketplace at the conference was dominated by vendors selling Trump merchandise.

Trump’s continued praise of the Russian leader exposes a rift in a Republican party trying to reconcile Trump’s populist wing with its traditional hawkish stance on Moscow. It’s a potential headache for Republicans heading into midterm elections as the party tries to recapture suburban voters alienated by Trump. 

The former president also again hinted he’ll make a third run for the White House in 2024.

The Democratic National Committee denounced Trump’s remarks and said the speech reflected his party’s position on Russia and Ukraine.

“After spending four years selling out Ukraine, the defeated former president took the stage at CPAC to double down on his shameless praise for Putin as innocent Ukrainians shelter from bombs and missiles at the hands of Russia,” DNC spokesperson Adonna Biel said in a statement.

In his speech Saturday, Trump called the invasion of Ukraine “an assault on humanity” and a “horrific disaster” and said “we are praying for the proud people of Ukraine.” But he said he was the only president in the 21st century on whose watch Russia didn’t invade a country.

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He blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Putin being emboldened by U.S. missteps and weakness, especially the withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying President Joe Biden “has turned calm into chaos, competence into incompetence, stability into anarchy and security into catastrophe.”

The Ukraine invasion, he claimed, wouldn’t have happened had he not lost an election he again falsely said was stolen from him.

In an interview released Saturday with political commentator Brian Tyler Cohen, Biden fired back at Trump’s earlier comments, saying “I put as much stock in Trump saying that Putin’s a genius as I do when he called himself a stable genius.”

Trump critic Liz Cheney, a Wyoming representative, called fellow Republicans taking cues from Trump on Russia the “Putin wing of the GOP” on Twitter. Much of the traditional conservative establishment in Washington has denounced Putin and expressed support for Ukraine and for strong sanctions against Russia.

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