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When John Met Vlad

One of McCain's best lines is about Vladimir Putin. As McCain often says, "I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three things — a K and a G and a B.” This, of course, isn't just a shot at Putin but also at Bush, who famously declared upon meeting Putin in 2001 that he'd "looked the man in the eye" and "was able to get a sense of his soul." McCain tells us today that he knew Bush was wrong about Putin from the get go. But if that's the case, why didn't McCain say so at the time?

Here's the transcript of an interview McCain did with Chris Matthews in June 2001, about a week after Bush's meeting with Putin: 

MATTHEWS: Let's talk about Mr. Putin, Vladimir the impaler.

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: Is Vladimir a man you can trust, that you can look into his soul? The president says he looked into his soul and he found a man he could trust. Do you believe that?

Sen. McCAIN: I don't really know.

MATTHEWS: Do you think that's an appropriate way to do business with a--with a Russian leader?

Sen. McCAIN: I don't know if--it--'cause I--I...

MATTHEWS: Talk about instant background checks. He instantly decides this guy was trustworthy.

Sen. McCAIN: The president did a good job in his European trip. I think that most Americans appreciate the job he did, and they're slightly resentful at the kind of condescension that--that d--that Europeans seem to have shown towards Ronald Reagan as--and--as well as...

MATTHEWS: Any conservative.

Sen. McCAIN:, mo--most any conservative. We think the president did a good job overall. Whether he went a little too far in saying that he could trust him...

MATTHEWS: Was he too gushy?

Sen. McCAIN: No, I--I think--I think the president appreciates the importance of a US-Russia relationship, and the por--importance of a relationship between himself and Putin. Would I have used exactly that same language? Maybe not. But the president has established a relationship with Putin. There are major issues, including nuclear weapons and ma--weapon--weapons of mass destruction.

MATTHEWS: Can I ask you a...

Sen. McCAIN: I think the president did a good job.


MATTHEWS: On a four-point system, how did the president do in Russia, on his trip to the re--meet Putin in Slovenia?

Sen. McCAIN: On Russia, I d--I give him very high marks.


Sen. McCAIN: I--I give him an A. I'd give him an A.

MATTHEWS: An A? An A from Senator McCain. And we tried to get you to fight today. Put up your dukes. Anyway, Senator John McCain, thanks for joining us. [Emphasis added.]

Now, maybe this was just a case of McCain being diplomatic and not wanting to say anything bad about Bush. But it's important to remember the context: back in 2001, McCain wasn't exactly shy about criticizing the president. He'd just voted against Bush's tax cut and was fighting with Bush on the patient's bill of rights. (Privately, he was reportedly flirting with the idea of bolting the GOP altogether.) In fact, Matthews billed the interview with McCain as being "about his five battles with Bush over the future of the Republican Party." And yet, when it came to Bush's handling of Putin, that was a battle McCain had no interest in fighting. 

--Jason Zengerle