It was the question that launched a thousand questions.
“Will you call on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to stay out of this election?” then-candidate Donald Trump was asked July 27, 2016, during his last news conference of the general election.
“I’m not going to tell Putin what to do,” Trump replied. “Why should I tell Putin what to do? He already did something today where he said don’t blame them, essentially, for your incompetence.”
It wasn’t about Russia, he said — or China or whoever had hacked the Democratic National Committee and passed files to WikiLeaks, which had begun releasing them publicly the week prior.
“Why do I have to get involved with Putin? I have nothing to do with Putin. I’ve never spoken to him. I don’t know anything about him other than he will respect me,” Trump said. But: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That’ll be next. Yes, sir.”
Naturally, that request to foreign adversaries was the focus of people’s attention, for good reason. Last Friday, an indictment bearing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s signature alleged that, on that same day, Russian intelligence officers began targeting Hillary Clinton’s private email server, once the home to the 30,000 emails Trump had mentioned.
Trump’s broader comments about Putin that day, though, seem more significant in the wake of his summit with the Russian president this week. It’s considered a matter of conventional wisdom that Trump’s views of Russia broadly and Putin specifically have been unequivocally positive during his time in politics, but that’s not quite right. Trump slowly and subtly evolved into the position that he held in July 2016 and demonstrated in Helsinki on Monday, as he evolved into so many of the positions that he now stubbornly adheres to.
2012-2015: Using Russia as a cudgel — and Putin as an example
There was a period before the 2012 presidential election when Trump first hit on the idea of leveraging social media to amplify his political voice. He had been a vocal advocate for the birther movement, reveling in the attention that his false claims about Barack Obama’s birthplace got him. While he toyed with running for president that year, Trump’s strategy mirrored his successful one in 2016: a relentless troll targeting liberals and the left.
Putin and Russia were useful in that regard, especially once Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine. Trump consistently presented Putin as having no respect for Obama and criticized the president for allowing Russia to outplay the United States. Troop movements. Edward Snowden. Nuclear weapons. Each was an example of the Russian threat, Putin’s strength and Obama’s futility.
“What do you think Obama will do when Putin seizes Alaska?” he asked at one point. Russia’s brashness was Obama’s weakness. “Putin has shown the world what happens when America has weak leaders,” he tweeted shortly after the Crimea annexation.
“BREAKING NEWS: Obama has just made a trade with Russia. They get Florida, California & our gold supply,” he wrote a few months later. “We get borscht & a bottle of vodka.”
This period overlapped with the announcement that the Miss Universe pageant, then owned by the Trump Organization, would be held in Moscow. Trump was giddy about the opportunity, at one point wondering on Twitter whether Putin would “become my new best friend?”
During this period, Trump also claimed to have a relationship with the Russian president. In an interview shortly before the pageant, he told NBC’s Thomas Roberts that Putin was “very interested in what we’re doing here today. He’s probably very interested in what you and I are saying today, and I’m sure he’s going to be seeing it in some form.”
When he returned to the U.S., he bragged about his relationship with the Russian leader. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2014, he linked Putin’s respect for him to his disregard for Obama.
“Putin even sent me a present, beautiful present, with a beautiful note. I spoke to all of his people,” Trump said. “And, you know, you look at what he’s doing with President Obama. He’s, like, toying with him. He’s toying with him.”
In a speech that May, he said, “I spoke indirectly — and directly — with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.”
2015: Trump outlines his approach to Russia
When he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Trump used Putin to undercut the Obama administration.
“Even our nuclear arsenal doesn’t work,” he claimed, referring to an April 2014 “60 Minutes” report on maintenance of U.S. nuclear weapons.
“It came out recently they have equipment that is 30 years old. They don’t know if it worked. And I thought it was horrible when it was broadcast on television, because boy, does that send signals to Putin and all of the other people that look at us and they say, ‘That is a group of people, and that is a nation that truly has no clue. They don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know what they’re doing.’ ”
When Putin subsequently pointed to his nation’s nuclear arsenal as a sign of Russian strength, Trump claimed to be “shocked” by Putin’s brazenness. Later in the year, Trump said that it “was a hell of a statement for him to make. And that’s a statement that’s made because of a lack of respect.”
“Putin hates us, he hates Obama today,” he said in a speech that August. “I think he’d like me, I’d get along great with him I think. No, he has no respect for our president and our president doesn’t like him and often they don’t have good chemistry, to put it mildly, would you say, but I’d get along with these people.”
Trump still used Russia after launching his campaign mostly as an example to undercut Obama, as when he criticized the Iran nuclear deal because it allowed the Russians to sell air-defense systems to Iran. He also used Russia to hammer U.S. allies, including criticizing Germany for buying natural gas from the country during an August 2015 interview — a preview of the rhetoric he used last week.
But generally his approach to Russia became increasingly conciliatory after he launched his campaign. A few weeks after his campaign began, Trump spoke at Freedomfest in Las Vegas, where he was asked a question by a member of the audience about Russia and lifting sanctions.
“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” Trump said. “Putin has no respect for President Obama. Big problem. Big problem.” He claimed that Obama had pushed Russia to ally with China. “I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, okay?” he added. “And I mean where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”
The person asking the question was Maria Butina, who was accused Monday by the Department of Justice of acting as an agent of the Russian government.
He hit upon the idea that giving Russia a free hand in Syria would be advantageous, reinforcing his antiwar arguments while also bolstering his rhetoric about giving the Islamic State (or, in his preferred parlance, ISIS) as tough a fight as possible.
“You know Russia wants to get ISIS, right?” he asked rhetorically during a speech that September. “We want to get ISIS. Russia’s in Syria, maybe we should let them do it. Let them do it. What the hell, are we crazy?”
“I’m very happy if Russia wants to go knock the hell out of ISIS,” he said on “Morning Joe” the next month. “Let them do it. It’s going to be another quagmire. Syria is going to be another quagmire, just like Iraq, just like Afghanistan. They’re going to be in there. And, by the way, the Soviet Union broke up because of Afghanistan.”
When Obama later spoke about working with Russia on targeting the Islamic State, Trump took credit.
Meanwhile, his approach to Putin was more effusive than ever. During that “Morning Joe” segment, Trump celebrated having been on “60 Minutes” the week before with “my stablemate Vladimir Putin.”
During a Republican primary debate the next month, he took this assertion further.
“If Putin wants to go in, and I got to know him very well because we were both on ’60 Minutes,’ we were stablemates, and we did very well that night,” he said. “But, you know that. But, if Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100 percent, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it.”
Trump and Putin were interviewed separately in separate countries for separate segments, a fact that was quickly pointed out. But Trump apparently saw Putin as a way of bolstering his foreign-relations bona fides, something for which he’d come under fire on the campaign trail.
“Putin cannot stand Obama, like a lot of people,” Trump said at one point, encapsulating his point. (He also admitted then that he and Putin had been interviewed separately.)
In one of the more remarkable (and forgotten) moments of that period, Trump proudly declared on Twitter that “Russia and the world has already started to respect us again!”
The primaries: The ‘genius’ comment
In December, Putin was interviewed by ABC News, during which he referred to Trump as “colorful” and “talented” and “absolutely the leader in the presidential race.” That was ABC’s translation which, our fact-checkers noted, differed from other translations. One translation from Interfax had Putin saying that Trump was “a very bright and talented man.” Bright in the sense of vibrant and colorful, not smart.
But Trump’s own translation was different.
In the middle of that month, Trump was on “Morning Joe” again, where host Joe Scarborough and NBC’s Willie Geist confronted him about his support for Putin.
TRUMP: When people call you “brilliant” it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.
SCARBOROUGH: Well, I mean, also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and . . .
GEIST: Invades countries.
SCARBOROUGH: . . . and invades countries, obviously that would be a concern, would it not?
TRUMP: He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.
SCARBOROUGH: But, again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him.
TRUMP: Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.
On “Meet the Press,” Trump denied having praised Putin.
“I didn’t praise him. He praised me. He called me brilliant,” Trump said. “He said very nice things about me. … I’m sure he is a strong leader. What am I going to say, he’s a weak leader? He’s making mincemeat out of our president. He is a strong leader. I mean you would like me to call him a weak leader. He’s a strong leader. And I’m not going to be politically correct.”
In a speech in January, Trump’s presentation of Putin’s words evolved further.
“Putin said Trump is brilliant, he’s the real leader,” he said. “Now, I don’t know if he means it, if he doesn’t mean it, I don’t care, I like it, okay? And these characters I’m running against, they think I should disavow his statement. . . . I said, why, I’m gonna disavow when he says these nice things?”
During a debate in early March, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) challenged Trump on his praise for Putin.
RUBIO: You’ve expressed admiration for him.
RUBIO: Donald, you said he’s a strong leader.
TRUMP: Wrong … he said very good things about me. … Let me just tell you, first of all, I’ve been hearing this man so long talking about Putin. Putin said about me — I didn’t say about Putin — Putin said very nice things about me. And I say very nicely, wouldn’t it be nice if actually we could get along with Russia, we could get along with foreign countries, instead of spending trillions and trillions of dollars?
A week later, in another debate, Trump walked a finer line, claiming that “strong leader” wasn’t necessarily a compliment.
“As far as Putin is concerned, I think Putin has been a very strong leader for Russia. I think he has been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you,” he said. “I mean, for Russia, that doesn’t mean I’m endorsing Putin. . . . Strong doesn’t mean good. Putin is a strong leader, absolutely. I could name many strong leaders. I could name very many very weak leaders. But he is a strong leader. Now I don’t say that in a good way or a bad way. I say it as a fact.”
In Trump’s own presentation of the comments, Putin’s effusiveness grew.
At first, Trump simply claimed to have been called “brilliant.” In March, he told the New York Times that Putin had said, “Donald Trump is brilliant and Donald Trump is a real leader. And Donald Trump will be the real leader.” In a speech in Redding, Calif., that June, he asserted that Putin’s words were “Donald Trump is a genius; he’s going to be the next great leader of the United States.”
It’s often unclear where to draw the line between the hyperbole Trump says and the hyperbole Trump believes. Did Trump actually think Putin had said such effusive things about his candidacy? Was he aware that he was inflating the comments? Or did he really think that Putin — his acquaintance, if not friend — had praised him in such expansive terms?
Mid-2016: Putin becomes a liability
Shortly before the Democratic convention began in late July, WikiLeaks began releasing those emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. According to Mueller’s indictment, WikiLeaks is alleged to have contacted the identity established by the Russians to control the documents, asking for the ability to dump everything right before the convention to promote “conflict between bernie and hillary.”
At the time, this was seen as a boon to Trump. Combined with his demonstrated affinity for Putin and reports at the time linking the hacks to Russia, it raised questions about the interplay of WikiLeaks, Russia, Putin and Trump. That’s why Trump was asked about rejecting Putin in the news conference on July 27.
Perhaps because of the response to his asking Russia to turn up Clinton’s “missing” emails (they had been deleted for being unrelated to her work at the State Department), Trump began to distance himself from the Russian leader.
“[S]he said well, Donald Trump likes Putin. I don’t know Putin, folks. I don’t know,” Trump said in a speech in Wisconsin. “I hope I like him, I hope he likes me because I’d love to get along with Russia. Okay? Love to. But I don’t know.”
Even then, though, he tempered his comments.
“Donald Trump — think about it — wants to befriend Putin and other things, she said, right?” he continued. “And I’m saying to myself, what’s wrong with that? That’s good.”
“Putin doesn’t like our president,” he said in Miami a few days later. “Putin has no respect for Obama whatsoever. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually get along with Russia, wouldn’t that be a decent thing? Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Still, he recognized that the connection to Russia wasn’t exactly helpful. In early October, during the vice presidential debate, Trump’s official Twitter account promoted sketchy ties between Clinton and Russia as a way of undercutting his opponent.
During the second presidential debate, he argued that he was being criticized for being friendly to Russia solely as a rhetorical gambit by Clinton.
“I notice, anytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are — she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia,” he said. “And the reason they blame Russia is because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia. I know — I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.”
Then there was the infamous third debate.
TRUMP: I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good. He has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president. . . .
CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!
Shortly before the election, Trump summarized his response to questions about Russia in a speech in North Carolina: He had no relationship with Putin or Russia and who knows if the WikiLeaks releases — which amped up earlier that month after the “Access Hollywood” tape was published — were the result of Russian hacking anyway?
“First of all, I don’t know Putin, have no business whatsoever with Russia, have nothing to do with Russia,” he said. “And, you know, they like to say every time WikiLeaks comes out, they say this is a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russia. Give me a break. You know, number one, they don’t even know it’s Russia. Who knows? It might be Russia, could be China, could be, if you remember Sony, it could be North Korea, it could be a lot of places.”
Then Trump won.
The transition: Outreach to Russia
In an interview with the New York Times a few weeks after the election, Trump again questioned whether Russia was behind the hacking, suggesting at the same time that his rhetoric on Putin had been validated.
“[W]hen they used to say, during the campaign, Donald Trump loves Putin, Putin loves Donald Trump, I said, huh, wouldn’t it be nice,” he said. “I’d say this in front of thousands of people, wouldn’t it be nice to actually report what they said, wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia, wouldn’t it be nice if we went after ISIS together . . . You know they thought it was bad that I was getting along with Putin or that I believe strongly if we can get along with Russia that’s a positive thing. It is a great thing that we can get along with not only Russia but that we get along with other countries.”
We know now that in December Trump’s appointed national security adviser, Michael Flynn, contacted former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak to discuss sanctions being planned by the Obama administration to punish the country for its interference in the election. Flynn asks that Russia not respond to the sanctions, and Kislyak later tells him this convinced Putin on the subject.
Trump tweeted his praise for Putin’s response publicly.
December 2016 to now: An angry defense
By that point, though, the media was already reporting that intelligence officials believed that Russia had actively interfered in the election with the aim of helping Trump win election.
“Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card,” he tweeted. “It would be called conspiracy theory!”
Democrats, including Clinton, were just exhibiting sour grapes. He tweeted a quote from Putin making that point.
The intelligence agencies (then still under Obama’s direction) prepared a classified report documenting the evidence of Russian interference. Trump expressed skepticism, implying the evidence was being manufactured.
Two weeks before his inauguration, he was presented with the assessment and, during a news conference a few days later, he offered one of his few public acknowledgments that Russia was probably involved in the interference.
“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” he said. “But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”
He noted, though, that “President Putin and Russia put out a statement today that this fake news was indeed fake news. They said it totally never happened.”
He continued: “Now, somebody would say, ‘Oh, of course he’s gonna say that.’ I respected the fact that he said that.”
In public and private, Trump continued to defend Putin while claiming that the investigation was without merit. He told the prime minister of Australia that his call with Putin had been far more pleasant, according to a leaked transcript. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, then of Fox News, Trump defended Putin’s record of killing political opponents.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump said. “You think our country’s so innocent?”
In March, over his advisers’ objections, Trump congratulated Putin on winning reelection as president despite international outrage over the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer on British soil.
“I’m not for Russia. I’m for the United States,” he said last month, defending his proposal that Russia be readmitted to the G-7 group of nations. “But as an example, if Vladimir Putin were sitting next to me today instead of one of the others and we were having dinner the other night in Canada I could say would you do me a favor? Would you get out of Syria? Would you do me a favor? Would you get out of Ukraine?”
At times, though, Trump has also criticized Putin and Russia publicly. In April of last year, he said of Putin’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad that Putin was “backing a person that’s truly an evil person and I think it is very bad for Russia.”
“Frankly, if Russia didn’t go and back this animal, you wouldn’t have a problem right now,” Trump said of Assad. “He was going to be overthrown. I thought he was gone. He had another week. I mean, he was finished, he had nothing. Nothing. And then Russia came in and saved him and then Obama made one of the worst deals in history with the Iran deal, so you really have Iran and you have Russia and you have Assad.”
He offered the same criticism before striking Syria for the second time this year.
“In 2013, President Putin and his government promised the world that they would guarantee the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. Assad’s recent attack, and today’s response, are the direct result of Russia’s failure to keep that promise,” he said. “Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace.” On Twitter, he said Russia and Iran were “responsible for backing Animal Assad.”
Mostly, though, Trump’s commentary about Putin and Russia has been to disparage the investigation into interference in now familiar terms: “fake news” and a “witch hunt.” That accelerated last May with the Mueller appointment and, last July, when news broke about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer at Trump Tower.
When that lawyer admitted to having ties to the government earlier this year, Trump offered a reason for that sudden revelation during a speech: “You know why she did that? Because Putin and the group said you know this Trump is killing us. Why don’t you say that you’re involved with government so that we can go and make their life in the United States even more chaotic?”
This has been the other way in which Trump has tried to defend himself from the increased questions about his relationship with Putin: He’s far tougher on Russia than anyone else would be.
In a news conference in April, Trump said that “nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have.” He pointed to evidence: Increased energy exports, a stronger military, the expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of that former Russian agent.
“I have been Russia’s worst nightmare,” he claimed in June. “If Hillary got in, I’d think Putin is probably going, ‘Man, I wish Hillary won.’ Because you see what I do.”
On Monday, Putin was asked directly if he’d wanted Trump to win in 2016 and if he’d directed officials to help him win.
“Yes, I did. Yes, I did,” Putin replied. “Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”