WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Only hours before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, former President Donald J. Trump again praised the cunning of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia while lashing out at the intellect of President Biden.
“I mean he’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Putin to donors and Republican lawmakers at Mar-a-Lago, his private club, on Wednesday. “I’d say that’s pretty smart.”
The kind words a former president gave a foreign adversary locked in a geopolitical showdown with the United States — and committing the most egregious act of aggression in Europe since World War II — would be virtually unprecedented, except that Mr. Trump himself had praised Mr. Putin only a day earlier, saying his aggression was “genius” and “very savvy.”
The scale and perils of Russia’s attack became increasingly apparent on Thursday after Russia assaulted Ukraine by land, sea and air, and Ukraine’s interior ministry announced that Russian troops had pushed into the highly radioactive Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Other Republican leaders have condemned Mr. Putin’s actions.
“Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is reckless and evil,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, said in a statement on Thursday, adding: “This act of war is intended to rewrite history and more concerning, upend the balance of power in Europe. Putin must be held accountable.”
Mr. Trump has long expressed admiration for foreign strongmen, and for Mr. Putin in particular, notably during his 2016 presidential campaign. In that campaign, Mr. Trump directly appealed to the Russians to hack the emails of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival. Russians made their first effort to break into the servers used by her personal office that same day.
Once elected, Mr. Trump broke with decades of American precedent and repeatedly showed unusual deference toward Russia.
As president, Mr. Trump stood next to Mr. Putin at the end of a 2018 summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland, and publicly challenged the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election to aid Mr. Trump.
In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said that America’s current president “doesn’t have a clue.”
“Now they laugh at us, they think we’re a bunch of fools,” Mr. Trump said of foreign leaders. “That’s why you have Ukraine. That’s why you’re going to have China. Taiwan is next and you’re going to see the same kind of a thing.”
Mr. Trump called Ukraine a “great piece of land with a lot of people,” as if describing a potential investment property.
He did not bring up the fact that he had tried to pressure Ukraine in 2019 to investigate Mr. Biden in hopes of benefiting his own re-election campaign. That pressure led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment and eventual acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Later on Wednesday, after the fighting had begun and explosions could already be heard in Kyiv and around Ukraine, Mr. Trump called into Fox News, where he claimed that the crisis would not have happened if he were still in the White House.
Both in his speech and on Fox News, Mr. Trump repeated his false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
“He was going to be satisfied with the peace,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Putin, “and now he sees the weakness and the incompetence and the stupidity of this administration.”
The Fox News host, Laura Ingraham, put Mr. Trump on hold to go live to the United Nations. Mr. Trump waited. When they resumed talking, Mr. Trump misunderstood Ms. Ingraham at one point, mistakenly believing she had reported that Americans had launched an amphibious attack, though Mr. Biden has repeatedly said no American troops would be deployed. Ms. Ingraham had to correct him.
Maggie Astor contributed reporting.