Two days after Vladimir Putin told the United Nations on Monday that it was an "enormous mistake" not to cooperate with the Syrian government in its fight against the Islamic State, Russian warplanes began hitting targets in the country -- and not necessarily targets that were the location of Islamic State fighters.
The day after Putin's speech, Fox News's Bill O'Reilly asked Donald Trump what Putin was up to. "We spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, wounded warriors all over, and Putin is now taking over what we started. He's going into Syria. He frankly wants to fight ISIS, and I think that's a wonderful thing."
As for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Trump said that "maybe he's better than the kind of people we're supposed to be backing."
Prior to that, Trump compared President Obama unfavorably to the Russian president. "I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he's getting an 'A,' and our president is not doing so well," Trump added. "They did not look good together."
In a survey conducted last March, Quinnipiac University found that a majority of Americans thought Putin was indeed a strong leader (though they weren't ask to offer a letter grade). When asked to compare who was stronger, Putin or Obama, the result was tied.
Notice how strongly partisan that response is. Republicans were much less likely to say that Obama is a strong leader, and much more likely to say that Putin is stronger. (A Fox News poll the same month asked who'd win a game of chess, Putin or Obama. People chose Putin -- thanks largely to Republicans making that choice.)
That's what Trump is tapping into -- what he's been tapping into literally since the day he announced his candidacy. Obama and the current leadership are weak and are losers. He -- that is, Trump -- will not be. So when asked about Putin, Trump used it as an excuse to bash the sitting administration. Politics.
The problem is that Trump now is in a weird position. Putin might have been viewed as a strong leader, but he's also very unpopular. The number of people viewing Putin unfavorably spiked at the beginning of last year, at the time that Russia first made its foray into Crimea.
There haven't been recent polls about Putin's actions in Syria, but it's easy to imagine that Americans will not look favorably on Putin flexing his power and strengthening his sphere of influence -- which is precisely what Trump endorsed in his interview with O'Reilly.
Explicitly. When O'Reilly said that the result would be that "Putin runs Syria," Trump responded, "Alright. Okay. Fine. ... Do you want to run Syria? Do you want to own Syria? I want to rebuild our country."
That response, while seemingly contradictory for a candidate who has also pledged to be "the most militaristic person ever," gets at the heart of Trump's political calculation. Isolationism is easier than complexity. Trump gets that many voters will accept his views, given that it shifts the choice from "American versus Russian influence" to "American versus Syrian resource investment." People didn't like what Putin did in Crimea, but half of Americans thought it wasn't wise for the U.S. to draw a hard line in response.
For most presidential candidates, praising the leadership of a guy who's bent on weakening America's grip on a strategic area would be an obvious mistake.
Once again, a reminder that Trump is not most presidential candidates.