It took only 24 hours for Donald Trump to hail Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dismembering of independent, democratic, sovereign Ukraine as an act of “genius.”
The former President often accuses his enemies falsely of treason, but his own giddy rush to side with a foreign leader who is proving to be an enemy of the United States and the West is shocking even by Trump’s self-serving standards.
As President Joe Biden reprises the fabled presidential role of leading the free world, the predecessor who wants to succeed him is showing Putin that impunity, dictator-coddling and hero worship will return if he wins back the White House. Trump’s remarks on a conservative radio show on Tuesday will not only find a warm welcome in the Kremlin. They also will concern allies standing alongside the US against Russia who fear for NATO’s future if Trump returns.
Trump also sent an unmistakable message to Republicans, who are already playing into Putin’s hands by branding the current President as weak, that siding with a US foe is the way into the ex-President’s affections ahead of this year’s midterm primaries.
Trump didn’t take long to make sure Putin knew he approved of his movement of troops into parts of eastern Ukraine, knowing that his comments would be picked up and beamed around the world.
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine, of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful,” Trump said in an interview on “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show.”
The ex-President added: “So Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s going to go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s the strongest peace force,” Trump said. “We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. … Here’s a guy who’s very savvy. … I know him very well. Very, very well.”
Trump was referring to Putin’s declaration on Monday that he would regard two rebel regions of eastern Ukraine, where he has been fostering separatism, as independent and his order for Russian troops, which Putin misleadingly called “peacekeeping” forces, to reinforce the enclaves. The move was a flagrant violation of international law, was resonant of the tyrannical territorial aggrandizement of the 1930s that led to World War II and was, as Biden said on Tuesday, tantamount to “the beginning of a Russian invasion.”
In effect, the ex-President is trying to undermine US foreign policy as the current President tries to stop a war that could kill thousands of people and threaten the post-Cold War peace.
But it’s unsurprising Trump would praise anything Putin does, given his genuflecting to the Russian leader while in office. Given that he tried to stage a coup that would have destroyed US democracy, it’s hardly shocking either that he’s not fretting at the loss of Ukrainian freedom. Trump once stood side by side with Putin at a Helsinki summit and trashed US intelligence agencies that said Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election to help him. And Trump tainted Ukrainian democracy himself, seeking to extort President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation into his then-Democratic rival, Biden – an abuse of power that earned him the first of his historic two impeachments.
More than the average Trump controversy
In the hierarchy of vital news stories on Tuesday, the ex-President’s boastful ramblings pale in significance to the alarming events in Eastern Europe. But his comments amounted to more than the normal carnival barking and prioritizing of personal obsessions over national interests for which Trump is known.
No other living former president would dream of, let alone get away with, lionizing a Russian leader who may soon be waging the biggest war in Europe since World War II after declaring on Monday that Ukraine has no right to exist.
But Trump’s status as the likely favorite for the Republican nomination in 2024 – and the possibility that he could return to power – takes his latest crowing over Putin’s gangsterism to a new level. He’s sending the promise of future favors and approval of Putin’s illegal land seizures, which suggest he would do little to reverse them as president.
Trump’s latest idolization of Putin is likely to widen the growing divide in the GOP between traditional hawks, who have sometimes praised Biden for standing up to the Russian leader, and pro-Trump lawmakers – and conservative media stars like Tucker Carlson – who have sided with Putin.
Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, a possible future Republican presidential candidate, also recently praised Putin, a scourge of democracy, as a “very talented” and gifted statesman. “He was a KGB agent for goodness sakes. He knows how to use power. We should respect that,” Pompeo told Fox in January.
The fact that this is coming from leading members of the party of ex-President Ronald Reagan, who beseeched then-Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in divided Berlin and was credited with winning the Cold War, represents a startling transformation. And it shows how far the GOP has traveled away from its respect for fundamental US democratic values in the pursuit of power.
Some Republicans have been more subtle in their criticism of Biden. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has backed the President’s effort to unite Western allies behind the US in order to confront Putin and is in favor of strong sanctions to punish the Russian leader. But not for the first time on Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican demonstrated that he was ready to play the game at both ends – accusing Biden of causing the crisis through weakness.
“I don’t believe Vladimir Putin would have a couple of hundred thousand troops on the border with Ukraine had we not precipitously withdrawn from Afghanistan last August,” McConnell said in Lexington on Tuesday. “The impression we have left, first with the abandonment of Afghanistan, is that America is not interested in playing as large a leadership role as we used to.”
McConnell is tapping into a sentiment shared by many Americans of both parties that the US evacuation from Afghanistan last year was chaotic and poorly planned and hurt perceptions of Biden’s leadership abroad. At the same time, however, Biden’s leadership in this crisis has been more assured. He has, for instance, brought NATO members closer than they have been in many years.
The idea that Biden is weak in the face of Putin is sure to play out on the midterm campaign trail all year. But the fact that Republicans are laying such a charge following their complicity in Trump’s obsequious attitude toward Putin is hypocritical and absurd. The House Republican leadership, which is in Trump’s pocket, accused Biden of “appeasement” on Tuesday – the same day that their de facto leader described Putin as a “genius.”
Trump’s repeated fawning over Putin
While the last administration often laid out a firm stance against Russia, it was repeatedly undermined by Trump’s gushing admiration for Putin in public and his habit of making impulsive decisions that played into Russia’s foreign policy goals, including the US withdrawal from northern Syria.
Trump lauded Putin in the interview Tuesday as a “tough cookie” who loves his country and he insisted that he had stopped Putin from invading Ukraine on his watch.
“I knew that he always wanted Ukraine. I used to talk to him about it. I said, ‘You can’t do it. You’re not going to do it.’ But I could see that he wanted it,” the former President said. In reality, Trump suggested during his 2016 campaign that Russia could keep Crimea, another Ukrainian territory which Putin had annexed in 2014. “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump said, parroting a Kremlin talking point.
The idea that Trump’s toughness prevented Putin from invading Ukraine is undermined not only by his chummy exchanges with a leader who imprisoned opponents and presides over a country where journalists are often killed.
One of the goals of Putin’s pressure on Ukraine – as he has made repeatedly clear – is to drive NATO back to its boundaries at the end of the Cold War and to divide the Western alliance. With Trump in power, the Russian leader didn’t need to bother with the latter goal, since his counterpart in the White House frequently berated trans-Atlantic allies and cozied up to US enemies.
And it’s not as if Putin let up on America when Trump was in power. Cyberattacks emanating from Russian soil also took place throughout the Trump presidency, including the SolarWinds operation that breached US federal agencies. Supposed respect for the US didn’t stop Russian agents from using a biological weapon on British soil to poison a defector, according to the UK government.
There are multiple documented instances of Trump being soft on Putin. And GOP criticisms of Biden as failing to stand up to Putin conveniently forget Trump’s notorious Helsinki news conference, not to mention the multiple strange contacts between his 2016 campaign team and Russian outsiders.