Donald Trump can’t help himself.
Over and over again this week – as Russia massed forces along Ukraine’s borders and then invaded on Wednesday night – the former US President found time to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Tuesday, in an interview with conservative radio hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton, Trump repeatedly praised Putin for his strategy on Ukraine.
“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,” Trump said. “Oh, that’s wonderful.”
Later in that same interview, Trump said this: “Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper.”
Then on Wednesday night, Trump sounded a very similar note while speaking during a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago.
“They say, ‘Trump said Putin’s smart.’ I mean, he’s taking over a country for two dollars’ worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart. He’s taking over a country — really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, and just walking right in,” Trump told the crowd, according to a recording of the event.
Politically, this seems insane. Praising a Russian invasion – with absolutely zero provocation – is not the sort of thing that American politicians do. Ever since the Cold War, America has viewed Russia very skeptically, understanding that the country had expansionist tendencies that could imbalance the delicate peace that has been in place since World War II.
So, why is Trump praising Putin? For Trump, everything – and I mean everything – is transactional. There is no right or wrong. There’s only, can you do this thing or not, and what does it get you versus what does it cost you. In Trump’s worldview, might makes right. If you can take something, you should. Being perceived as strong – in your own country and in the world – is all that matters.
We saw that sentiment play out many times during Trump’s presidency.
Earlier this year when he endorsed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for reelection, Trump praised him for doing a “powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary” and touted him as a “strong leader.”
Of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump has said: “I like President Xi a lot. I consider him a friend, and – but I like him a lot. I’ve gotten to know him very well. He’s a strong gentleman, right? Anybody that – he’s a strong guy, tough guy.”
Of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump offered this: “President Erdogan: He’s tough, but I get along with him.”
And Trump has also praised Putin in the past for the iron grip with which he rules. “The man has very strong control over a country,” Trump said of the Russian President in 2016. “Now, it’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly in that system, he’s been a leader. Far more than our president has been a leader.”
Trump’s attraction to authoritarian rulers then is well established. He likes the idea that they do what they want when they want – and damn the naysayers who question them.
Given all of that, no one should be surprised that Trump is praising Putin, even as the Russian President provokes conflict in Europe. It’s what Trump seems to believe. Which is pretty scary.