President Trump's campaign-season flattery of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a head scratcher at the time, makes a bit more sense after The Washington Post reported Sunday night that Trump's company was working on a deal to build a skyscraper in Moscow.
The Post's Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman reported that “as part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested that he could get President Vladimir Putin to say 'great things' about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.”
“Discussions about the Moscow project began in earnest in September 2015,” The Post reported, but the Trump Organization “lacked the land and permits to proceed, and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016.”
Trump did not travel to Moscow to pitch the tower, but he praised and defended Putin during the period of development negotiations — and Putin did say a few “great things” in return.
Here is a timeline of comments that now carry additional significance, given what we have just learned about the business talks going on in the background.
Sept. 16, 2015: At a Republican primary debate sponsored by CNN, moderator Jake Tapper posed the following question to Trump: “What would you do right now if you were president, to get the Russians out of Syria?”
“So, number one, they have to respect you,” Trump replied. Putin, he said, “has absolutely no respect for President Obama. Zero. Syria's a mess. You look at what's going on with ISIS in there, now think of this: We're fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants.” (ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.)
“I will get along, I think, with Putin,” Trump added, “and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable world.”
Notice that Trump didn't actually agree with the premise of the question — that the United States should compel Russia to leave Syria.
Sept. 17, 2015: Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen, the lead negotiator on the Moscow project, said this on Sean Hannity's radio show: “There's a better than likely chance Trump may even meet with Putin when he comes here for the United Nations. People want to meet Donald Trump. They want to know Donald Trump.”
Cohen was referring to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, scheduled for later in the month.
Sept. 20, 2015: On NBC's “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd asked Trump whether he did plan to meet with Putin.
“Well, I had heard that he wanted to meet with me,” Trump answered. “And, certainly, I am open to it. I would love to do that if he wants to do that. I don't know that it's going to take place. I'm not sure. I know that people have been talking. But we'll see what happens. But, certainly, if he wanted to meet, I mean, I'd enjoy doing it.”
Sept. 22, 2015: In an interview that aired five days later on CBS's "60 Minutes,” Trump made clear that he is not determined to push Russia out of Syria.
“If you look at Syria, Russia wants to get rid of ISIS,” he said. “We want to get rid of ISIS. Maybe let Russia do it. Let 'em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?”
The Sept. 27, 2015, episode of "60 Minutes” also featured an interview with Putin.
Sept. 28, 2015: At a news conference, Trump told reporters that he thought “60 Minutes” was “softer” on Putin than it was on him. Asked why that would be the case, Trump quipped that “Putin is a nicer person than I am.”
Sept. 29, 2015: On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly asked Trump whether the meeting with Putin had happened. “Did Putin go up to your office, and did you guys, like, bond or anything this week?” O'Reilly wondered.
“No, I didn't know anything about him coming to my office,” Trump said. “But I will tell you that, I think, in terms of leadership, he is getting an A and the president is not doing so well. They did not look good together.”
O'Reilly pressed Trump about the idea of letting Russia lead the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. “I'm going to tell you what the downside is,” O'Reilly said. “Once Putin gets in and fights ISIS on behalf of Assad, Putin runs Syria; he owns it. He will never get out. Never.”
“All right,” Trump replied. “Okay, fine. I mean, you know, we can be in Syria. Do you want to run Syria? Do you want to own Syria? I want to rebuild our country.”
Oct. 11, 2015: On CBS's “Face the Nation,” host John Dickerson asked Trump whether he has “similarities with Vladimir Putin.”
“No, I think the biggest thing we have is that we were on '60 Minutes' together, and we had fantastic ratings — one of your best-rated shows in a long time,” Trump said. “So, that was good, right? So, we were stablemates.
“I think that we are very different. I think that I would, at the same time, get along very well with him. He does not like Obama at all. He doesn't respect Obama at all. And I'm sure that Obama doesn't like him very much. But I think that I would probably get along with him very well, and I don't think you would be having the kind of problems that you're having right now. And as far as him attacking ISIS, I'm all for it. If he wants to be bombing the hell out of ISIS, which he's starting to do, if he wants to be bombing ISIS, let him bomb them, John. Let him bomb them.”
Nov. 10, 2015: At a GOP debate sponsored by Fox Business, moderator Maria Bartiromo asked: “What does President Trump do in response to Russia's aggression?”
“Well, first of all, it's not only Russia,” Trump said. “We have problems with North Korea, where they actually have nuclear weapons. You know, nobody talks about it. We talk about Iran, and that's one of the worst deals ever made. One of the worst contracts ever signed, ever, in anything, and it's a disgrace. But we have somebody over there, a madman, who already has nuclear weapons; we don't talk about that. That's a problem.
“China is a problem, both economically and what they're doing in the South China Sea. I mean, they are becoming a very, very major force. So, we have more than just Russia. But, as far as the Ukraine is concerned, and you could Syria — as far as Syria, I like — 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.”
For the record, Trump and Putin were interviewed in separate locations and did not meet.
More important: Notice that Trump, when asked about “Russia's aggression,” deflected and talked instead about North Korea, Iran and China.
Dec. 17, 2015: At a news conference, Putin called Trump “a bright and talented person,” “an outstanding and talented personality” and “the absolute leader of the presidential race.”
“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” Trump responded, in a statement released by his campaign. “I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
Dec. 18, 2015: On MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” the hosts asked Trump about what Putin had said the day before.
“Do you like Vladimir Putin's comments about you?” Mika Brzezinski asked.
“Sure,” Trump replied. “When people call you brilliant, it's always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.”
“Well, I mean, he also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and … invades countries,” Joe Scarborough followed up. “Obviously, that would be a concern, would it not?”
“He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump answered.
“But, again, he kills journalists that don't agree with him,” Scarborough said.
“Well,” Trump said, “I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe. So, you know.”
“You obviously condemn Vladimir Putin killing journalists and political opponents, right?” Scarborough asked a moment later.
“Oh, sure,” Trump said. “Absolutely.”
Trump went on to add this: “I've always felt, you know, fine about Putin. I think that he is a strong leader. He's a powerful leader. He's represented his country — that's the way the country is being represented. He's actually got popularity within his country. They respect him as a leader. Certainly over the last couple of years, they've respected him as a leader. I think he's up in the 80s, which is, you know, you see where Obama's in the 30s and low 40s, and he's up in the 80s.”
Jan. 26, 2016: On Fox Business, Bartiromo asked Trump about the conclusion of British investigators that Putin probably authorized the assassination of a Russian dissident named Alexander Litvinenko in London.
“Well, I don't know if anything has been determined,” Trump said. “I don't think they found him guilty. They say a lot of things about me that are untrue, too.”
He continued: “The fact is that, you know, he hasn't been convicted of anything. You know, some people say he absolutely didn't do it. First of all, he says he didn't do it.”