(CNSNews.com) – Neither the White House nor State Department on Thursday would repeat Vice President Joe Biden’s description of President Vladimir Putin as a “dictator,” but White House press secretary Josh Earnest pointed to a State Department assessment that Russia “has a highly centralized authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin.”
The department also says, in its most recent annual human rights report, that Russia’s institutions “lacked independence from the executive branch,” Earnest noted.
Asked whether President Obama believes Putin to be a dictator, he did not answer directly, but did say, “I think you’d be hard-pressed to draw a distinction between the word that Vice President Biden used and the language that was included in the State Department report.”
At the State Department daily briefing, spokesman John Kirby was even more cautious.
Asked whether he would – from the briefing podium – use the word in reference to Putin, Kirby said, “I’m not going to – I’m going to let the vice-president’s comments speak for themselves. And I’m not going to qualify them one way or another going forward.”
“So are you saying that he’s speaking on behalf of the administration when he calls Vladimir Putin a dictator?” a reporter asked.
“He’s the vice president of the United States,” Kirby said, before directing further questions to Biden’s office
Kirby went on to say that Secretary of State John Kerry “remains focused on trying to work with Russia on issues where we think we can work with them on,” including Syria and Ukraine.
“That’s where the secretary’s head is.”
Biden called Putin a dictator while criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during the vice-president’s speech Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
“Donald Trump, with all his rhetoric, would literally make us less safe,” Biden said. “We cannot elect a man, who belittles are closest allies, while embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin. No, I mean it.”
Obama has publicly used the word “dictator” on a number of occasions in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – including in a speech at the United Nations last September. At a White House press conference the following month he called Assad “a brutal, ruthless dictator.”
In 2011 Obama called Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi a dictator, and he also used the word to describe Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, including in his 2011 State of the Union address and in a U.N. speech the following year.
But until Biden’s comment on Wednesday night the term has not been used publicly by the administration to describe the leader of a permanent member of the Security Council – a country with whom the U.S. has serious policy differences but also engages with constantly in diplomatic efforts relating to Syria, Iran and other issues.
Trump’s stated views on Putin have made waves during the GOP primaries and now in the presidential campaign. He said during a CNN-hosted debate last September that he would “get along with” the Russian leader, and to MSNBC in December called Putin “a powerful leader.”
The same month, Putin said during a press conference he would work with whomever wins the U.S. election, but when asked about Trump, called him “a very bright personality, a talented person, no doubt.”
Trump welcomed those remarks, calling it “a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
During a press conference in Florida on Wednesday, the GOP presidential nominee suggested he could reverse the U.S. policy of not recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in response said the Crimea comment did not change Russia’s attitude towards Trump.
“We know perfectly well that candidates say one things in the heat of election campaign but later after taking office and under a burden of responsibility, the rhetoric changes, becoming more balanced,” Itar-TASS quoted Peskov as saying.
At that same Florida press conference, Trump raised eyebrows when he expressed the hope that Russia – a primary suspect in the hacking of U.S. networks – had access to and would release the more than 30,000 emails which his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton said she deleted, after using a private server while secretary of state.
Trump later characterized the comments as sarcasm.