The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Genius,’ ‘Savvy’: Trump reacts to Putin’s moves on Ukraine exactly as you’d expect

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin give a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Those clamoring for former president Donald Trump’s voice in their social media feeds can turn to his spokeswoman, Liz Harrington. Until Trump’s own social media platform is actually running, Harrington’s Twitter feed is the best immediate source for the various Twitter-esque riffs and links that Trump puts out through his political action committee several times a day.

So, for example, one could learn from Harrington on Tuesday morning that Trump would be making an appearance on a right-wing radio program. And then, a few hours later, you could hear part of the discussion for yourself, dutifully shared by Harrington.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

For example, you could hear how Trump replied when the show’s hosts asked him about President Biden’s response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sending military forces into Ukraine.

“In the last 24 hours we know Russia has said that they are recognizing two breakaway regions of Ukraine, and now this White House is stating that this is an ‘invasion,’ ” host Buck Sexton said. “That’s a strong word. What went wrong here? What has the current occupant of the Oval Office done that he could have done differently?”

“Well, what went wrong was a rigged election,” Trump said, once again misrepresenting the results of the 2020 presidential contest. “What went wrong is a candidate that shouldn’t be there and a man that has no concept of what he’s do — ”

Trump said “doing,” actually, but Harrington’s clip cut off a bit too early. That’s probably because of what Trump said next.

“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius,’ ” Trump continued. “Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. So, Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s strongest peace force … We could use that on our southern border.”

He continued to praise Putin a bit later.

“Here’s a guy that says, you know, ‘I’m gonna declare a big portion of Ukraine independent’ — he used the word ‘independent’ — ‘and we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace,’ ” Trump said. “You gotta say that’s pretty savvy. And you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response.”

Harrington’s clip didn’t include all of that about how Putin’s move was “genius” and “smart” and “savvy,” something Trump said more than once. And when your press person is cutting off quotes early, that’s not an accident.

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)

I suspect that you are not surprised to hear this. The disdain for Biden that enveloped the comments about Putin isn’t a surprise, even as Trump’s dismissal of Biden’s response was undercut by the announcement of new sanctions on Tuesday afternoon.

Nor is it a surprise that Trump would express admiration for Putin. Few people better encapsulate the right’s mixture of respect for Putin’s autocratic tendencies and the perceived embarrassment of Democratic presidents that results than Donald Trump. When Putin seized Crimea in 2014, Trump declared that “Putin has eaten Obama’s lunch” and pretended to worry that President Barack Obama would do something “very foolish and very stupid to show his manhood.” This, of course, came less than a year after Trump wondered if Putin would become his “new best friend” when the Miss Universe pageant was held in Moscow.

There’s little need to articulate the extent to which Trump flirted with Putin and Russia during his 2016 campaign and his presidency. Remember when he invited Russia’s foreign minister to the Oval Office the day after he fired FBI Director James B. Comey for pressing forward on the Russia probe? Remember when he met with Putin in Helsinki and then emerged to take Putin’s side on Russia’s 2016 election interference? Remember his repeated insistences that he thought it was important to get along with Russia, by which he meant it was important to get along with Vladimir Putin — someone who was not his enemy but might still turn out to be a friend?

Remember when he said that Putin said he was brilliant, which Putin didn’t really say but which helped fuel months of Trumpian enthusiasm about how he and Putin might end up as pals? Remember, too, how Putin was just one of a contingent of authoritarians (Turkey, China, North Korea) who Trump enjoyed being around, preferring being stroked by America’s enemies to being challenged by our allies?

So, without even being asked to take sides in the power struggle between our country and Russia, Trump took sides. Putin was clever and wily, and Biden inept and toothless. There are ways to criticize Biden without explicitly praising the Russian authoritarian actively seeking to reorder democracy in Europe — see the example of every vocal Republican in the Senate — but this was not the path Trump chose to follow.

At another point on Tuesday — and about two seconds later in the radio interview — Trump reiterated his claim that Putin wouldn’t have entered Ukraine were he president. The impression he hopes to give is one of strength; that Putin feared his response. There’s no evidence for that, of course. What was the point in Trump’s presidency when Putin might have felt intimidated by Trump’s exercising of American power? The sanctions he didn’t want to apply? His refusal to blame Russia for interfering? As I wrote on Tuesday, it seems much more likely that, if American politics played any role at all, Putin would want to move when he could expect the political right to criticize Biden more than himself. That includes the former president. After all, Putin’s so savvy, right?

This response from Trump is not surprising. It is nonetheless noteworthy.


An earlier version of this story misstated Harrington's occupation.