Evasive would be the right word to describe every answer Donald Trump gave today on “Morning Joe.” He didn’t answer any of the questions posed to him. Not even the one I asked about what leadership responsibility he had to address, tamp down or at least keep in check the passions roiled by his campaign rhetoric. But as troubling as that non-answer was, Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin was far worse. It was disgraceful.
.@realDonaldTrump on Putin: When people call you brilliant, it’s always good https://t.co/yNTFwwjcQS— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) December 18, 2015
The Republican front-runner long has lauded the leadership abilities of the Russian president. And mutual admiration turned to bromance yesterday when Putin said at his year-end news conference, “He’s a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt. It’s not our job to judge his qualities, that’s a job for American voters, but he’s the absolute leader in the presidential race.”
When asked whether he liked what Putin had to say about him, Trump said, “Sure, when people call you ‘brilliant’ it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.” Host Joe Scarborough said what I was thinking at that moment. “It’s also a person who kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries,” he said. “Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?” To which Trump replied, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader.”
“You definitely condemn Vladimir Putin killing journalists and political opponents, right?” Scarborough pushed again. “Oh sure. Absolutely,” Trump said. So, there’s nothing to praise here, right? Wrong! Trump said that the relationship between the United States and Russia would change because “I’ve always felt fine about Putin. I think he’s a strong leader. He’s a powerful leader.” Yes, Putin IS a powerful leader — who annexed Crimea, continues to threaten Ukraine, is a complicated ally (defined in the loosest of terms) in the fight against the Islamic State, persecutes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Russians and has (allegedly) turned journalists into endangered species.
Putin is not someone to be admired. He is a Soviet-style dictator who must be viewed with caution and skepticism. And because of divergent interests and historic enmity, the relationship between Washington and Moscow should be circumspect, at best. That’s why that reset button that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to her Russian counterpart in 2009 was more hope than reality.
Look, the leaders of the United States and Russia will never be buddy-buddy. Despite the bons mots shared between them, don’t look for Putin and Trump to share shirtless horse rides on the global stage. What Putin stands for is anathema to everything we hold dear. An aspirant to the Oval Office ought to know this. That Trump neither knows nor cares is another on the list of reasons he should never be president.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj