Donald Trump is again under fire for warm comments he directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin, this time calling him a stronger leader than US President Barack Obama at a national security forum this week.
“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” the Republican nominee said. “I’ve already said he is very much of a leader. The man has very strong control over his country.”
“You can say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a terrible thing,’ I mean, the man has very strong control over his country,” the Manhattan billionaire added. “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.”
While Trump’s fascination and appreciation of Putin is nothing new, the latest round of comments made during NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum on Wednesday have seen an increased defence from some in the GOP.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said it’s “inarguable” that Putin has been “a stronger leader” in Russia than Obama’s been in the US. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said he thought Putin was stronger than Obama because he saw Russian nationalism increase “substantially” and that Russians “are proud of being Russians today.”
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt also joined the fray, insisting that although Putin is “an evil man” and Obama is “good” but “incompetent,” Putin’s served the national interest of Russia better and “he’s eating USA’s lunch.”
Other prominent conservatives delivered strong statements disavowing any positive thought from the Republican Party toward Putin, a subject that has remained in the headlines as Trump refuses to say a negative word about the autocratic Russian leader.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called Putin an “aggressor that does not share our interests” and violates the “sovereignty of neighbouring countries,” while adding that it appears Putin’s regime is involved in “cyberattacks on our political system,” referencing the hacks on prominent Democratic organisations.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the “calculation from Trump unnerves me to my core,” and although Putin has “walked all over Obama,” Graham wouldn’t agree that the Russian leader is better than the US president. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and once in the running to be Trump’s running mate, expressed concern at the idea Trump welcomes compliments from Putin.
“You know, flattery can be used as a tool that sometimes bears very negative fruit,” he said. “One has to be careful about letting flattery affect one’s relationship with a person or a country.”
But Trump’s apparent approval of Putin has gone a long way with rank-and-file GOP voters, who, in 2012, had a presidential nominee in Mitt Romney that called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe” after a hot-mic picked up Obama telling Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev that he’d have “more flexibility” to discuss missile defence after the election.
A poll from the same outlets released in August 2016 showed that Putin’s net-favorability rating among Democrats remained identical. But the Russian leader’s rating among Republicans improved dramatically, from -66 to -27.
“Of all the damage Trump can do to the American conservative movement, making it pro-Putin rather than pro-freedom could be the most serious,” Weekly Standard editor and “Never Trump” conservative Bill Kristol posted to Twitter.
Putin with Barack Obama.
The comparison between Putin and Obama
Trump’s contention that Putin is stronger than Obama can be interpreted in two ways: One, Putin has projected more strength on the world stage than Obama, which many Republicans and foreign policy experts would likely agree with. The other, is that Putin has tight control over his country, something that most would be hesitant to praise, considering the differing systems of government and the means by which Putin has done so on the backs of his countrymen.
In terms of his consolidation of governmental power, Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider that he thinks Putin is the “singularly most powerful individual on the planet.”
“I think that’s true because he’s consolidated so much more power, sort of de-legitimized the opposition,” he said.
Putin’s been able to bring Russia’s judiciary system under his control, while governors are now under Kremlin control, he added.
“Now, there’s no question that that’s allowed Putin to project more force for Russia internationally,” Bremmer said.
Bremmer argued that Putin has been able to improve Russia’s political position in an “almost unimaginable” way since gaining power.
“There’s no question that Russia has managed [to improve its international hand] by virtue of using its military might in Ukraine as well as in Syria and more broadly in the Middle East in ways that the Americans would not and that the Europeans would not,” he said. “There’s no question that Russia has shown itself as a more relevant actor and has gotten itself a larger seat at the table.”
“They wouldn’t have had a 90 minute meeting with Obama [at the G-20 summit],” he added. “Obama could say I’m not seeing [President Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines because of a mis-translation of an interview he gave to a journalist. Obama wouldn’t be doing that to Putin right now.”
But the country’s military excursions in Crimea and Syria have been countered by a diminishing economy.
“[L]et’s be clear, Russia is in decline. NATO has expanded. The European Union has enlarged. And most importantly, while NATO and the EU have become a little weaker, China is becoming much stronger. And much stronger and much faster than Russia is.”
“China is investing overwhelmingly in all these countries around Russia, and they’re developing much more influence than Russia has in Russia’s own backyard. And this is going to be a very serious consequence, a very serious negative consequence to the Russians over the medium to long-term. No question when you look at the geopolitical map that Russia is one of these countries that over the long-term looks to be in terminal geopolitical decline, and Putin has facilitated that.”
Although Putin’s favorability ratings remain high, as Trump pointed out, it is not the best time to be a Russian living under Putin’s government. In Trump’s worldview, Bremmer said it’s “completely accurate” to say Putin is stronger than Obama.
“But in a worldview, would you care more about how your citizens feel about the future for themselves and for their nation, that they have common values, that they act as a community, that they look out for each other, that the leader engenders values that in turn make them better citizens?” Bremmer asked. “Clearly, Obama has not been the best, but he’s clearly been vastly better than Putin.”
And in terms of being stronger on the domestic stage, it’s impossible to argue that Obama is “stronger” than Putin because the Russian president does not have any of the constraints and checks and balances put forth by the American system of government.
“If he wants to lock someone up, it’s a lot easier,” Bremmer said of Putin. “If he wants to go into a neighbouring country, he can do it. It’s much harder for the Americans. If you want to make a statement that is most authoritarian leaders are stronger than most American presidents in terms of what they can do, you can say that. That is objectively fact.”
“Putin would be unequivocally a stronger leader than Hillary [Clinton] or Trump would be, by that definition,” he added.
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and president of the Potomac Strategy Group, agreed with Bremmer’s sentiment, calling an Obama to Putin comparison on domestic politics “apples to oranges.”
“How do you define strong leadership?” he rhetorically asked in an interview with Business Insider. “Was Hitler a strong leader? What’re we trying to say here?”
“You want to say that Putin exudes strength and with terrible tactics, rules with an iron fist in his country, and that compares very differently to Obama, who in many ways has been a weak president,” he continued.
A result of Putin’s displays of strength that Trump appeared to praise is that he’s become more negatively viewed by not just the US, but by “all the western powers and by all the developed nations,” Mackowiak argued.
The GOP strategist added that if Trump were elected and tried “1/20th” of what Putin’s done in Russia, the Manhattan billionaire would “be impeached.”
“And I have no doubt about that,” he said. “I think it’d be a unifying moment for the country.”
What the stance on Putin from Trump means for the GOP
Trump’s position on Putin and on Russia could not be further removed from the GOP’s stance toward the nation in recent years.
But, with the Republican nominee now differing in his outlook toward Russia, the party is no longer virtually unified in opposition to Putin.
“What’s really sad here is there was damn near unanimity among Republican Party elected officials and foreign policy community and national security community on the threat and opinion on Putin and what he’s doing,” Mackowiak said. “Not everyone maybe wants to give lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, not everyone wants to institute a no-fly zone in Syria. There has been damn near unanimity in the opinion on Putin.”
He said that, with “Trump derangement syndrome” growing in the party, he estimates a full 25% of Republicans are now “twisting themselves into a pretzel” to defend Trump saying Putin is stronger in Russia than Obama is in the US. Referencing Pence’s recent comments, Mackowiak said there was “no way in hell” the governor would have made his “inarguable” statement six months ago.
“Look, Obama deserves a hell of a lot of criticism, I think he’s done a hell of a lot of damage,” he said. “But not every criticism needs to be taken to the fullest extent. Some comparisons just aren’t reasonable. There is no comparison between Putin and Obama. There just isn’t.”
Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College and senior contributor at The Federalist, expressed dismay with how his fellow conservatives are “mortgaging their principles in order to keep up with Trump’s increasingly bizarre statements.”
“I just have a hard time that these folks are doing anything but tying to compensate, they’re trying to keep up with Trump which is almost impossible,” he told Business Insider. “I think conservatives have always expected a lot more from other people including [former New York City mayor and top Trump surrogate Rudy] Giuliani and Hewitt. I think no one really expects a deep understanding of geopolitics from Trump.”
He referenced the earlier poll, where Putin’s negatives with Republicans were cut by a dramatic amount, as proof that the rank-and-file are taking their queues from the party’s nominee.
The professor called Trump’s comparison between Putin and Obama “completely outside the bounds of normal American political discourse.”
“I mean that is just bizarre and it’s the kind of, it’s the kind of thing Trump says and he ends up saddling his supporters with a comment like that and they have to figure out how to make it less toxic,” he said. “I’m a conservative, I’ve been highly critical of Obama’s foreign policy for 8 years. Comparing the president of the United States to a Russian dictator is just something you don’t do. It’s un-American.”
“And again, people like Hugh Hewitt know better,” he continued. “It’s bad enough when Trump says it but when Hugh Hewitt piles in behind him, Hewitt knows the difference between dictatorial control and democratic leadership. But like so many other people, he’s boxed in by the nominee.”
The most “interesting” part
Trump’s warmth toward Putin says a lot more than that the GOP nominee simply thinks Obama has been a weakling.
“What’s more interesting is that this man is campaigning for the presidency of the United States, and that Putin, who is clearly a leader that wants America to be weaker, he has written in the New York Times that there is nothing exceptional about the United States,” Bremmer said. “And Putin himself has praised Trump as a genius, a brilliant guy, but I think there’s a reason why.”
He added: “The fact that Trump believes that it’s a good thing to be sort of closer to Putin than just about any other world leader should raise some significant questions and concerns about what kind of president he would be if elected.”
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