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Carly Fiorina’s Puffed Up Putin Showdown

Fiorina has made her encounter with the Russian president a centerpiece of her foreign policy pitch, but the actual meeting was quite different from her account.

09.24.15 5:03 AM ET

When presidential candidate Carly Fiorina warns about Vladimir Putin’s charm, and wit, she’s speaking from experience. In the early days of the Russian leader’s presidency, Fiorina hailed him as an agent of positive change after meeting with him briefly at a conference of global business leaders—a far departure from the tough-on-Putin image she has presented on the campaign trail.

The businesswoman is soaring in the polls, in no small part because she spoke firmly on complex foreign policy issues during last week’s presidential debate. Fiorina has repeatedly boasted of meeting Putin—using their meeting to bolster her foreign policy bona fides and to provide a contrast between herself and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I have sat across a table from Vladimir Putin, just he and I, and I can tell you having met this man, it is pretty clear to me that a gimmicky red reset button will not thwart his ambition,” Fiorina said in a recent stump speech, at the South Carolina Freedom Summit.

But her encounter with Putin is an odd credential for her to burnish, when all indications are that Fiorina was initially misled about the Russian leader’s ultimate intentions.

Fiorina met Putin for 45 minutes in a green room-type setting, during the 2001 APEC CEO Summit in Beijing, where they were both scheduled to deliver speeches. Fiorina, at the time the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was slated to speak before Putin—and when addressing the audience she was effusive about how Putin had led a change more dramatic than anything her own company had accomplished.

“I keep wondering how it is that I got positioned to speak in the slot before the president of the Russian Federation—on the subject of change, no less,” Fiorina told the crowd. “Hewlett-Packard has been at the center of a lot of change in our 62-year history. But President Putin was elected president in the first democratic transition in Russia in 1,000 years.”

“Talk about giving new meaning to the word ‘invent,’” she added, a nod to HP’s slogan.

The Fiorina campaign pushed back against this interpretation of her 2001 speech. A spokeswoman said that Fiorina was merely making a “fairly banal statement of fact” and that it was “a stretch to see much more there.”

Far from ushering in a democratic Russia, Putin has in intervening years circumvented presidential term limits, jailed dissidents, and engaged in election fraud.

But Fiorina was far from the only corporate leader to hail Putin as a harbinger of change in Russia. At the time, many felt that the Russian leader would bring in a new era of reform.

Bill Browder, the founder of Hermitage Capital Management, specialized in Russian markets, also was impressed by Putin. He is now one of the Russian leader’s foremost critics.

“We all got Putin wrong in his first term. One of the main factors was that he’s always had a completely emotionless face and everyone always projects onto him their hopes and dreams of how he is, as opposed to who he really is,” Browder told The Daily Beast. “He didn’t correct anybody when they made these assumptions that he was a liberal, and a democrat, and an honest man… I’ve seen CEO after CEO go there and make a bunch of bland supportive statements to improve their business prospects in Russia.”

Fiorina has made confronting Putin and Russia a major plank in her campaign for the White House. She spoke at a conservative conference panel on Putin, describing him as “very intelligent. Very charming… a disarming sense of humor.”

And when she speaks about foreign policy, it is virtually certain that her meeting with Putin—and her plans to counter him—is bound to come up. Fiorina has said that she would expand the number of American naval assets, rebuild the missile defense program in Poland, increase the number of U.S. troops in Germany, and conduct military exercises in the Baltic states.

“Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to, because the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side, and we have all of that within our control,” Fiorina said at the most recent Republican presidential debate.

It set up up a stark contrast with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s vision for U.S.-Russia relations. “I will get along, I think, with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable world,” he said.

But between the two of them, Fiorina is apparently the only one who has gotten along with Putin the past.