Gaffe Track: The Victim or the Crimea

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “He's not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He's not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.” Stephanopoulos pointed out that Russia had already annexed Crimea. The response was classic Trump: This is all proof of how terrible Obama is, but also it’s not really so bad. He confirmed that he would consider recognizing the annexation: “But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

The defense: It’s Obama’s fault, or something.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): At first glance, this looks like a classic example of Trump just not really knowing what he’s talking about, a trait that endears him to supporters (he’s a non-politician!) and terrifies opponents (he’s dangerously ignorant!). But on closer glance, this is evidence of Trump’s radically different approach to foreign policy. In his worldview, Russia seizing sovereign territory in violation of international law is acceptable. He even parrots the Kremlin line that Crimeans have a right to self-determination—further evidence of a close alignment between Putin and Trump.

The lesson: A politician shouldn’t Kiev his opponents ammunition with unforced errors—but then again, the only Sebastopol that matters is on election day.