Donald Trump hasn't gotten a lot of big-name endorsements, so in that sense it's not a huge surprise that he'd embrace a thumbs up from someone pretty well-known. The catch is that the well-known person in this case, as you may have heard, was Vladimir Putin. And in accepting Putin's praise, Donald Trump ends up in exchanges like this one, from MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday.
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) December 18, 2015
TRUMP: When people call you "brilliant" it's always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.
HOST JOE SCARBOROUGH: Well, I mean, also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and ...
WILLIE 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.
A bit later, asked if he would condemn the killing of journalists, Trump replied, "Oh sure. Absolutely." And in the next response, "I've always felt fine about Putin. He's a strong leader. He's a powerful leader." Putin, Trump said, was respected as a leader -- his approval is in the 80s!
This is by no means a surprising response from Trump, who insists that his lead in the polls is a mark of his superiority and who has in the past suggested that the United States cede the fight in Syria to Russia. But it is, or should be, a surprising response from someone who seriously wants to be the president of the United States.
Vladimir Putin's poll numbers are high because he constantly struggles to keep them high. His poll numbers were far lower shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, which had the side benefit of letting him use the West as a foil. There was widespread prosperity, thanks in part to Russia's role in the oil trade -- which is now at risk as oil prices fall. There's also rampant corruption -- and, as U.S. News and World Report noted in July, the most recent poll conducted in the country is subject to a lot of reasons to suspect that his popularity numbers are inflated.
What's more, Putin's poll numbers among Americans are terrible. Globally, Russia is viewed very negatively, according to Pew Research, with two-thirds of Americans holding an unfavorable view of the country. Three-quarters of Americans have no confidence in Putin to do the right thing -- which presumably includes offering political endorsements.
Trump's vision of a strongman-president is well established. Someone who thinks you can simply take jobs back from China or make Mexico pay for a hugely expensive wall is someone who thinks that foreign policy comes down to the ability to twist an arm. That's why he praises Putin as a leader, unlike Obama. Putin wants Crimea? He takes Crimea. Hell yeah! Not like President Obama and these other Americans who "try to build consensus" and "respect democratic elections." Weak.
And, of course, it's nothing short of stunning to wave away the politically motivated murder of members of the media using some random false equivalency. "Our country does plenty of killing, too," Trump says -- but I'd challenge him to identify how and where the murders of political opponents of our country's leaders take place. As a member of the media, I'm predisposed to think that the murder of members of the media shouldn't be waved away. I would assume and hope that most Americans agree.
Trump's m.o., of course, will be to point to the follow-up, in which he said he "absolutely" condemns the murders of journalists. That's the Trump way: Say something outrageous with just enough wiggle room to wiggle. Not all things to all people, in the classic way of a politician, but enough things to enough people to get away with it.
America was designed specifically to prevent the sort of power accumulation that Vladimir Putin enjoys. Putin is a world leader, sure, but he's not a "president" in the sense that we recognize the term, any more than Al Capone would have been taken seriously if he'd started calling himself the president of Chicago.
One would assume that Trump's opponents would offer a simple reply: If you want Putin's endorsement, you're welcome to it.