Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin is trouble

Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the new book, “The Truth About Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Biographer Michael D'Antonio says Trump has long been fascinated with Russia and admiring of "strong men" like Putin

His running mate was right to point out serious consequences of potential Russian meddling in the campaign, D'Antonio says

CNN  — 

As Mike Pence seems to be learning fast, Donald Trump is not inclined to think much before speaking.

Amid growing concern that Russia was behind the recent hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer accounts, Trump said he hopes the Russians have Hillary Clinton’s emails from her days as secretary of state. Pence, Trump’s running mate, quickly distanced himself from this sentiment, saying there should be “serious consequences” for any foreign power meddling in an American election.

The dissonance between Trump and Pence, who served in Congress and spoke as a national leader is expected to speak, arose after Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks at a press conference he conducted at one of his golf courses in Florida. In typical style, Trump was flippant about the apparent meddling in U.S. affairs. “Russia, if you’re listening, he said, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will be rewarded mightily by our press.”

Michael D'Antonio

The hacked DNC emails, which included some that disparaged Hillary Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, were released by the organization called WikiLeaks on the eve of the Democratic National Convention and forced the resignation of national committee chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said he intended to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign with the release. Assange, who has lived for years in Ecuador’s embassy in London, avoiding extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual misconduct, said that “no one knows who our source is.”

The one source mentioned most often by Clinton aides, pundits including conservative George Will, and U.S. intelligence services, is the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin. (The best evidence for the link was discovered by a British professor who revealed it earlier this month.)

Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian leader – and don’t forget that’s the man who ordered the forceful takeover of Crimea, invaded Ukraine, and intimidated opponents at home. When asked about Putin’s record, which included allegations that he killed journalists, Trump dismissed the concern, saying he had seen no evidence to support the charges. “At least he’s a leader,” Trump said admiringly, “unlike what we have in this country.”

Trump’s fascination with Russia

Trump has long been fascinated with Russia and, before its dissolution, the Soviet Union. During the early 1980s he told The Washington Post that President Reagan should give him the job of negotiating nuclear arms agreements with the USSR. “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” he noted. He declined to say exactly what he would propose be done about arsenals with enough power to destroy the world several times over. However, he assured the paper that, “It’s something that somebody should do that knows how to negotiate and not the kind of representatives that I have seen in the past.”

At the time he volunteered, Trump’s major achievements included the renovation of a big hotel at Grand Central Terminal and the construction of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Negotiation was no doubt an element in these successes but they depended far more on the political connections and the $200 million fortune accumulated by his father during his decades of work as a local developer.

Then, as now, no evidence could be found to suggest Trump would make a talented diplomat. In fact, given his tendency to insult others, he seemed like the last person to send to handle a delicate matter.

No government officials from either party ever invited Trump into the arms control negotiations conducted by the United States with Russia. However, beginning in the 1980s he made various attempts to do business in Moscow. In 1987 he traveled there and hinted that he would meet with leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but the get-together never happened. Trump didn’t seal any deals to do business in Russia. Since then, competitors in the hotel business, including Ritz Carlton and Hilton, have established beachheads there, but not Trump. As he has said, he has “zero investments” in Russia.

‘Money pouring in’

Zero investments does not mean Trump has no relationships with powerful Russians. Indeed, as Donald Trump Jr. noted in 2008, Russians invest in Trump properties. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” he told a conference, according to a business publication called eTurboNews quoted by The Washington Post. In 2013, the elder Trump held the Miss Universe beauty pageant in Moscow. Though invited, Putin didn’t show up. (He sent a gift and a nice note.) Trump reported that “almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”

During the current presidential campaign, Trump has veered from the political mainstream, where Putin is generally regarded as an authoritarian rival of the United States and the West. When Putin complimented him, Trump said the praise was “a great honor.” Months later Trump told a crowd at a rally that he would not renounce Putin’s support. “A guy calls me a genius and I’m going to renounce,” said Trump. “I’m not going to renounce.”

Given all the mutual admiration, after he appeared on the same episode of the news program “60 Minutes,” Trump told a GOP debate audience, “I got to know him very well on ’60 Minutes.’ We were stablemates.” Although these comments left the impression that Trump met Putin, in fact they had never met. (At least that’s what Trump says now.)

Manafort and the Ukraine

If Trump wants to establish a relationship with Putin today he could use his own campaign staff to make an overture. Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has been involved in politics in the Ukraine for at least 10 years. An international political consultant, Manafort is widely reported to have worked to help the pro-Putin party of Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort polished up Yanukovich’s style and his client eventually became Ukraine’s president in 2010.

In his short reign Yanukovych became an exceedingly rich man who lived on a vast estate, built with public funds, where the grounds held a zoo, a reproduction of an ancient galleon, and a private car collection. When a pro-Western uprising forced him to flee the country, he said Putin “helped my security to get me out, and save my life.”

Although he was probably the only one rescued by Putin, Viktor Yanukovych was not the only authoritarian leader aided by Manafort’s consulting firm. In a report published in 1992 by the Center for Public Integrity, the company’s roster of clients was reported to include numerous despotic regimes. Trump seems to have a similar affinity for authoritarian leaders.

During the campaign Trump has voiced admiration for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein. What Trump admires in these men is the quality he admires in himself, strength evidenced by their successes.

Throughout his life, going back to his days as a schoolboy cadet at New York Military Academy, Trump has strived to reach personal goals – power, wealth, fame – through the demonstration of strength. Trump sees a kindred soul in men who suffer with the strong man complex, rising to power on the basis of sheer will and exercising it ruthlessly. For much of the Western world, Putin is the ultimate example of this dynamic. And like Pence, many people would agree that Trump is playing a risky game by encouraging the Russian leader.