The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s answer on Russia and Vladimir Putin at the NBC forum was totally bananas

Donald Trump speaks with "Today" show co-anchor Matt Lauer. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Donald Trump spent 30 minutes answering questions from NBC's Matt Lauer and a group of veterans during prime time Wednesday night. There were lots of "Oh, wow" moments produced by Trump in that relatively short period of time. But one stood out to me. And that was when Lauer asked Trump about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Here's the full exchange (it's long but necessary):

LAUER: Let me ask you about some of the things you've said about Vladimir Putin. You said, "I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he's getting an A, our president is not doing so well." And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said, "It's always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond."
TRUMP: Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here. Look, look …
LAUER: 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.
TRUMP: Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?
LAUER: But do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer?
TRUMP: Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I'll take the compliment, okay? The fact is, look, it's not going to get him anywhere. I'm a negotiator. We're going to take back our country. You look at what's happening to our country; you look at the depleted military; you look at the fact that we've lost our jobs. We're losing our jobs like we're a bunch of babies. We're going to take back our country, Matt. The fact that he calls me brilliant or whatever he calls me is going to have zero impact.
LAUER: But the fact that you say you can get along with him, do you think the day...
TRUMP: I think I'd be able to get along with him.
LAUER: Do you think the day that you become president of the United States, he's going to change his mind on some of these key issues?
TRUMP: Possibly. It's possible. I don't know, Matt. It's possible. And it's not going to have any impact. If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him. I've already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing' -- the man has very strong control over a country.
Now, 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. We have a divided country. We have a country where you have Hillary Clinton with her emails that nobody's ever seen where she deletes 33,000 emails, and that's after getting a subpoena from Congress. If you do that in private business, you get thrown in jail.




There is a lot going on in that answer.  Let's start with this: Trump is telling a room of military veterans that the president of Russia, who has a long history of intimidating political opponents and journalists, is a better leader than Obama. Regardless of whether you like or hate Obama, that's a remarkable statement. As Stuart Stevens, the lead strategist for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, put it on Twitter:

Hard to argue with that sentiment. In a country in which politicians relentlessly pay homage to American exceptionalism and regularly warn of the threat posed by Putin's ambitions -- as evidenced by his seizure of Crimea -- Trump's claim that Putin is a better leader than Obama is amazing.

But there's much more to be unpacked from Trump's praise/defense of Putin, and much to be learned from what it tells us about how Trump thinks about politics and the world.

Lauer sets up the exchange by giving Trump a chance to disavow some of the nice things the Republican nominee has said about Putin in the past. Trump doesn't take the bait. "Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here," he tells Lauer.

The Daily 202: Matt Lauer’s widely-panned performance shows the perils for debate moderators

Trump, as he has demonstrated throughout his presidential campaign, is obsessed with polling. His analysis goes this way: If you are popular, you are good. Period. So the fact that 82 percent of people approve of Putin -- regardless of the Russian leader's decidedly undemocratic views -- doesn't matter. What matters is that people like him. That means Putin is doing it right. For Trump, people liking you -- or liking a policy you propose -- is the only thing that matters. The relative rightness -- morally and otherwise -- of a statement or a policy is immaterial.

Then there was Trump's response to Lauer when the "Today" show host pushed him on whether he could have a better relationship with Putin than with Obama. Trump's response: "If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him."

Stunning -- and insightful about Trump's psyche. If you are nice to Trump -- no matter what you do to your people -- he will be nice to you. If you are nasty to him, he will be nasty to you. For Trump, the world and its leaders are to be analyzed entirely through his personal lens. If you compliment Trump, he's going to compliment you. It's that simple.

Trump's entire interview with Lauer was eye-popping. But how he handled questions about Putin was particularly remarkable. And not in a good way for Trump -- or the Republican Party.