During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s marathon annual news conference on Thursday, the controversial leader heaped praise on Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, calling the candidate “tremendous,” “very bright,” and “talented without any doubt.”
By Thursday evening, Trump had released an equally warm statement that would seem to belie the current state of affairs between Russia and the United States:
It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.
I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.
Jeb Bush, Trump’s rival for the Republican presidential nomination, quickly critiqued Trump for being “flattered by praise from a despot.” But as my colleague Krishnadev Calamur noted, Trump already fancies himself as someone who could get along with “a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with.”
The subtext here is, perhaps, that Trump is a strongman that other strongmen would have a beer with. Or like Putin, Trump might destroy a city and then rename the main street in that city after himself.
On Friday, a more nuanced template emerged when Trump appeared on Morning Joe and was pushed by host Joe Scarborough to reconcile Putin’s praise for Trump with Putin’s other deeds.
“Well, also he’s a person that kills journalists and political opponents and invades countries,” said Scarborough. “That would be a concern, would it not?”
Trump replied by taking a shot at President Obama. “He’s return running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” he said.
When Scarborough pushed again, arguing that Putin “kills journalist that don’t agree with him,” Trump didn’t budge.
“Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” Trump said. “You know, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on and a lot of stupidity.”
This remark in particular was also quickly seized upon by Republican leaders.
Important distinction: thug Putin kills journalists and opponents; our presidents kill terrorists and enemy combatants.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) December 18, 2015
While Trump ultimately said the killing of journalists does matter, what might be seen or portrayed as a flippant coddling of or cozying up to Putin actually falls within Trump’s foreign policy views, which he showcased this week at the Republican debate in Las Vegas. As my colleague David Graham noted during our liveblog, one of Trump’s feats for the evening was to offer yet another “impassioned lament about the negative effects of American intervention in the Middle East.”
However inelegantly, what Trump was ultimately saying about Putin is that if the United States were held to Russia’s standards, America would fold under the weight of its drone strikes and military action.
Speaking about Ukraine later in the segment, Trump chastised other countries like Germany for not doing more to stop Russia while taking their oil and gas. (Apparently Germany’s increasingly unpopular sanctions don’t count.)
But Trump, on Morning Joe, also criticized the United States for “always being at the forefront of leading the charge,” which speaks to his non-interventionist bent. “I think other countries have to get involved with that, Joe,” he said. “You have the Ukraine and it affects other countries a hell of lot more than it does us.”