SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — Donald Trump on Thursday criticized rival Hillary Clinton for being too tough on Vladimir Putin, once again raising eyebrows about the Republican candidate's relationship with the Russian president.
Speaking at a rally in Springfield, Ohio, as he kicked off a daylong swing through the battleground state, Trump took issue with Clinton's criticism of the Russian leader, who has been denounced in the West for his military assertiveness and anti-democratic tendencies.
"She speaks very badly of Putin, and I don't think that's smart," Trump told a crowd of thousands, noting that Russia has nuclear weapons.
"How do you speak so badly of someone?" he asked.
Trump has been criticized throughout his campaign for failing to denounce Putin and repeatedly denying connections U.S. intelligence officials say they've found between Russia and recent hacking efforts that appear aimed at influencing the outcome of November's election.
Clinton has seized on those comments and vowed through a spokesman to "stand up to Putin in the face of his unacceptable behavior, not coddle him."
Retired Gen. John Allen, who is supporting Clinton, rejected the idea that the former secretary of state speaks badly of Putin.
"I don't think anything Secretary Clinton has said about Vladimir Putin is untrue and I also don't believe that on this basis we can't continue to have a relationship with Russia over time," he told reporters in a conference call organized by her campaign.
Trump has long argued that the U.S. would be better off if it had a more productive working relationship with Russia and has called for the two countries to work together to take on Islamic State militants, despite their differences over Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
"It'd be nice if we could get along," he said at a later rally in Toledo, warning that Clinton's approach to Syria is "in conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia ... could very well lead to World War III."
Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, has taken a harder line on Putin, describing him during the vice presidential debate as a "small and bullying leader."
Trump has said that Putin is a stronger leader than President Barack Obama and praised him for exerting "strong control over his country."
The U.S. has accused Russia of coordinating hacks on Clinton's campaign emails. But Putin on Thursday dismissed those claims, saying the allegations were designed to distract the public from real issues.
He said suggestions that Russia was trying to bolster Trump were "sheer nonsense."
"It's just an instrument of political struggle, a way of manipulating public opinion," he said in Sochi.
Still, the Russian leader added that while Trump may sound "extravagant," he was trying to reach out to people who are tired of elites. He said, "time will tell how effective it is for him."
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.