When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time. Or in the case of Donald Trump, the 10th time.
At a campaign rally in Georgia over the weekend, the former President, again, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The smartest one gets to the top,” Trump told the crowd. “That didn’t work so well recently in our country. But they ask me, ‘Is Putin smart?’ Yes, Putin was smart. And I actually thought he was going to be negotiating. I said, ‘That’s a hell of a way to negotiate, put 200,000 soldiers on the border.’”
Trump added that Putin made a “big mistake,” but that “it looked like a great negotiation.”
That all sounds a lot like what Trump has been saying about Putin almost since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius,’” Trump said during an interview with conservative radio hosts last month. “Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine – of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.”
The very next day, Trump said almost the same thing.
“They say, ‘Trump said Putin’s smart.’ I mean, he’s taking over a country for two dollars’ worth of sanctions,” Trump told a crowd at a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, according to a recording of the event. “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.”
Then, in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference several days later, Trump tripled down. “Yesterday reporters asked me if I thought President Putin was smart,” he said. “I said, ‘Of course, he’s smart,’ to which I was greeted with ‘Oh, that’s such a terrible thing to say.’ I like to tell them, ‘Yes, he’s smart.’”
It now seems pretty clear that Trump meant what he initially said about Putin. Because between then and now Putin has carried out a relentless and deadly attack across Ukraine. And over that same period of time, prominent Republicans have scrambled to distance themselves from Trump’s Putin praise, even scolding the former President for saying what he said.
And yet, through it all, Trump has stuck, basically, to his original line – that Putin is a savvy player on the world stage who is always one step ahead of the United States.
Don’t overthink it: Trump keeps saying it because he believes it.
We saw time and again during his presidency that Trump is attracted to the strength and unapologetic nature of authoritarian rulers like Putin. (Here are 15 times Trump praised authoritarian leaders.) From crackdowns against the press to demands of total fealty from everyone serving in his government, Trump seemed at times like he was trying to model his four years in office on the way that authoritarian rulers from Russia to Turkey to China behaved.
Never forget that during a photo-op with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Japan in 2019, Trump said this of the media: “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do.” To which Putin said: “We also have. It’s the same.”
Trump’s praise of Putin then is a feature, not a glitch. He says it – and keeps saying it – because he is genuinely admiring of the supposed might the Russian president is showing in invading Ukraine. It’s that simple.