Former Vice President Mike Pence told some of the Republican Party's top donors on Friday night that the party cannot offer any support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, drawing a contrast with former President Trump, who called Putin "smart" and "savvy" during an interview last week.
"There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin," Pence said, according to excerpts of the speech obtained by CBS News. "There is only room for champions of freedom."
Trump has been criticized by some members of his own party for those comments. But in an address at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, even after Putin's invasion of Ukraine had begun, Trump reiterated his praise for Putin and disparaged U.S. leadership.
"The problem is not that Putin is smart, which of course he's smart, but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb," Trump said to the crowd.
Trump is expected to address donors at the retreat on Saturday night.
A significant portion of Pence's remarks focused on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He told the donors he has been "deeply inspired" by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and he criticized some of President Biden's foreign policy decisions, including the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Pence also asserted that NATO's expansion is not responsible for Russia's invasion. Trump frequently bashed NATO while he was in office and last week at CPAC slammed leaders of NATO nations as "not so smart" for their handling of the run-up to Russia's invasion.
"Where would our friends in Eastern Europe be today if they were not in NATO?" Pence said. "Where would Russian tanks be today if NATO had not expanded the borders of freedom?"
Pence also encouraged Republicans to look towards the future rather than back at the 2020 election if they are to be successful in the upcoming midterms. That vision also marks a clear departure from Trump's view; he still speaks at length about his 2020 loss and continues to baselessly assert that the election was rigged.
"We cannot win by fighting yesterday's battles, or by relitigating the past," Pence said. "Elections are about the future. My fellow Republicans, we can only win if we are united around an optimistic vision for the future based on our highest values."
Pence is staking out his differences with Trump about a week after the former president told attendees at a private reception at CPAC that they would be "very happy," in response to a question about a 2024 run. Trump also told the crowd that he knew who they "don't want as your V.P."
This isn't the first time that Pence has criticized his former boss. Last month, he said that "Trump is wrong" for claiming Pence had a right to overturn the election. Last June, Pence said he doesn't know whether he and Trump would "ever see eye-to-eye" about the January 6 attack at the Capitol.
As Pence continues to plot his future, the former vice president is expected to soon unveil what he calls a "freedom agenda" that he developed with nearly 50 fellow conservatives.
"Our goal is to help unite conservatives around an agenda that is optimistic, forward-looking and thoroughly conservative and can save our country from the radical left," Pence said.
Pence accused Mr. Biden of "singing from the Republican hymnal" during his State of Union address this week by focusing on a secure border, funding the police, keeping schools open and buying American. He also criticized the president's remarks on immigration reform, transgender children and raising taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans.
And he also took issue with the president's handling the Ukraine crisis, saying Mr. Biden "squandered the deterrence that our administration put in place to keep Putin and Russian from even trying to redraw international boundaries by force." He believes the Biden administration should take further steps to sanction Russia, including sanctioning all Russian oil exports worldwide.
Like other Republicans, Pence paints an optimistic vision of what's at stake in 2022, stressing that the midterms provide a rare opportunity to win a large share of seats. He said the "smart (Democrats) are heading for the hills," citing the more than 30 House incumbents who are retiring at the end of this term.
"Let's be clear-eyed about the opportunity before us," Pence said. "We are looking at a tidal wave of Republican victory on a scale we haven't seen since 2010, or even since the Republican Revolution of 1994. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."