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Opinion With his praise for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Trump makes his apologists look foolish. Again.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
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It is a commonplace on the right that the only reason that Vladimir Putin is invading Ukraine is that President Biden is too weak to deter him. As one right-winger tweeted: “I’m convinced that Putin would be a lot, LOT more hesitant to invade if Trump was President. Biden simply does not evoke any sense of strength or danger to our enemies.”

To believe this is to suffer from temporary amnesia about how Donald Trump actually acted toward Putin while he was in office. Who can forget Trump’s kowtow to Putin at Helsinki in 2018? The U.S. president rejected the findings of the United States’ own intelligence community about the hacking of the 2016 election and said: “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Or who can forget Trump’s use of U.S. military aid to extort the government of Ukraine into helping him politically? Or all of Trump’s anti-NATO animus? Trump mused about pulling out of the alliance, questioned its Article 5 security guarantees and ordered a withdrawal of 12,000 troops from Germany.

It is true that the Trump administration sometimes pursued tough-on-Russia policies independent of the president, but this was largely the work of officials who were purged long before the end of Trump’s term. By the end of his presidency, Trump was surrounded by people such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has recently called Putin “a very talented statesman,” “very shrewd,” “very capable,” and said, “I have enormous respect for him.”

What you need to know about the Russia-Ukraine crisis

At least Pompeo is willing to admit that Putin is the “aggressor” and the Ukrainians are his “victims.” No such censure was evident in Trump’s comments Tuesday to right-wing podcaster Buck Sexton. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is an act of “genius,” according to Trump. He explained:

“Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. ‘I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. ... We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy.”

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Trump went on to rhapsodize about his relationship with Putin — “He liked me. I liked him.” — and to praise him as someone with a lot of “charm and a lot of pride” who “loves his country.”

With those few words, Trump has just made a fool of every right-winger who has tried to pretend that he would have been tougher on Putin than Biden is currently being. Trump did claim that “this never would have happened with us,” but this was merely his usual rhetorical ploy of blaming Russian aggression on former president Barack Obama or on Biden rather than on Putin. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a single negative word Trump has ever uttered about the Russian tyrant.

And that’s just the way his most devoted supporters like it. It’s true that many mainstream Republicans criticize Biden for being too weak on Russia. But the hardcore MAGA base thinks that Biden has too been too hostile to Putin, who is viewed more favorably by Republican voters than Biden is.

On Feb. 22, White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed former president Donald Trump’s comments after he called Russia’s move on Ukraine “smart.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Tucker Carlson has become Putin’s No. 1 American apologist — and a favorite of Russian state television — by incessantly arguing that the United States has no stake in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. “Vladimir Putin does not want Belgium,” Carlson says. “He just wants to keep his western borders secure. That’s why he doesn’t want Ukraine to join NATO, and that makes sense.”

Carlson’s views are echoed by other America Firsters. Right-wing troll Candace Owens tweets: “NATO (under direction from the United States) is violating previous agreements and expanding eastward. WE are at fault.” Her fellow troll Charlie Kirk opines: “It feels as if Putin is going into places that want him. … It is a family dispute that we shouldn’t get in the midst of, that’s for certain.” Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance said, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine.” Fox’s Maria Bartiromo imaginatively suggested that the Biden administration’s “hysteria” about a Russian invasion of Ukraine might be a “ruse” to distract from the latest nonsensical allegations about Hillary Clinton spying on Trump.

Compare right-wing complacency about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with their hysteria about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada ordering the arrests of anti-vaccine mandate protesters who were blocking major thoroughfares. Carlson claims that “Canada canceled democracy,” while ignoring the actual, existential threat to democracy in Ukraine.

Four maps that explain the Russia-Ukraine crisis

This is the authentic voice of Trump’s America First movement — and it would be solidly in control of a second Trump term in a way it was not during most of his first term. Indeed, if Trump stages a comeback in 2024, he might well be counting on more political aid from Putin of the kind that he received in 2016.

So please don’t insult our intelligence by suggesting that Trump is the tough-on-Russia candidate or that his volatility would deter Putin. He’s more about Russia First than America First.