Vladimir Putin runs a kleptocracy that invades neighboring countries, stands accused of trying to interfere in the US election, and backs dictators around the globe. Donald Trump prefers to focus on a different aspect of Putin’s rule: the Russian strongman’s sky-high approval ratings.
Ignore the fact that Putin’s popularity at home has been boosted by his willingness to exile, jail, or kill both political opponents and journalists. To Trump, that simply makes Putin a strong leader, one whose praise the Republican nominee is happy to accept.
"When he calls me brilliant, I'll take the compliment," Trump said during a televised town hall meeting Wednesday.
The comment came during a slightly surreal exchange with moderator Matt Lauer, who pressed Trump about his past pro-Putin comments, which have included praising him as a "leader" and someone "highly respected within his own country and beyond" (the NBC anchor chose to ignore the fact that several close Trump aides — including the mogul’s recently ousted campaign manager, Paul Manafort — have extensive, and lucrative, business relationships with Moscow).
"He does have an 82 percent approval rating according to the different pollsters," Trump said. "By the way, some of them are based here."
That’s not true — only one poll shows that level of support, and it was conducted by a Moscow-based nonprofit called the Levada Center — but those details are entirely beside the point. Given the chance to back away from his praise of Putin — a position that has alarmed many leading Republican national security figures — Trump chose to instead double down.
"If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him," Trump said. "The man has very strong control over a country. 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."
Beyond the rhetoric, Trump has taken positions — endorsing Moscow’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, refusing to commit to defending NATO allies against a possible future Russian invasion — that are closely in line with the Russian leader’s long-held strategic goals.
The mogul has even encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email and publicly release what it found, a comment that led a spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan to write that "Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug. Putin should stay out of this election."
Trump later insisted he was joking.
Earlier in Wednesday’s exchange, Lauer ran through a laundry list of Putin’s sins.
"He's also a guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world, and, according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers," the moderator said.
Trump responded by arguing, in effect, that Barack Obama was just as bad.
"Do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?" Trump asked.
Obama took office hoping to "reset" relations with Russia, but will leave the White House with the two countries further apart than at any point since the Cold War. Trump’s continued praise of Putin — and willingness to, with a straight face, argue that Obama is just as immoral as the Russian strongman — suggests that the GOP nominee might actually succeed in building a warm relationship with Moscow. He’d just shed decades of American commitments and principles to make it happen.