The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia rationalization breaks further into the Trump-ian GOP mainstream

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)

Throughout his 5½ years as a candidate and then president, Donald Trump made a habit of saying oddly laudatory and defensive things about Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the GOP response, as with many of Trump’s provocations, was to shrug it off.

The result: With Russia now cuing up one of the biggest military confrontations in Europe in decades, Trump’s posture has crept even more into the conservative mainstream. And it has gone well beyond merely suggesting that Putin is a formidable foe; it has often involved suggesting he’s not really a foe at all or even that his invasion of Ukraine is justified or is our fault. With it come dismissals of Putin’s human rights abuses and the Russian geopolitical threat that top Republicans assured us as recently as a decade ago was unparalleled.

Trump added a new entry to his long-running string of Putin-sympathetic commentary Tuesday. In an interview in which he expounded on the situation for one of the first times, he used the opportunity to effusively praise Putin’s strategic acumen.

“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius,’ ” Trump said. “Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.”

Trump added: “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.’ ” He further said: “You gotta say that’s pretty savvy. And you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response.”

Some of Trump’s defenders, including on Fox News, have tried to play off the comments as Trump trolling the media. But you needn’t look far to see the fruits of Trump’s labor.

Arguably the second most significant player in the evolving GOP view of Russia and Putin has been Fox’s own Tucker Carlson. On Tuesday night, he suggested that maybe people shouldn’t hate Putin because Putin hadn’t wronged them in a direct and personal way.

“Before that happens, it might be worth asking yourself … why do I hate Putin so much?” Carlson said. “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs?”

Carlson concluded: “These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is no. Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that.”

Perhaps needless to say, but someone can be bad — even very bad — regardless of whether they harm you personally. And Carlson wasn’t just arguing against U.S. intervention in Ukraine; he was arguing against viewing Putin negatively, period.

Donald Trump Jr. on Tuesday liked a tweet from conservative provocateur Candace Owens that declared that “WE are at fault” for what Putin is doing right now. The tweet also urged people to read a transcript of Putin’s recent speech to “know what’s *actually* going on in Russia and Ukraine.” That’s the president’s son promoting a starkly pro-Putin outlook on the situation.

And Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo has walked something of a fine line. He has labeled Putin the “aggressor” in Ukraine and said we shouldn’t “love him, like him or bend a knee to him.” But Pompeo has repeatedly echoed Trump’s effusive praise for Putin’s formidability and even spoken somewhat cavalierly about Putin’s human rights abuses.

“When I think about some of the things they do in the diplomatic space and some of the things they do in this space where they go ‘off’ people, I think that’s counterproductive,” Pompeo said this week. “I shared that with [Putin] very directly. … I think those things just make it really hard for Western leaders to engage with you, because it lights up all the human rights issues.”

Pompeo added of Putin’s response: “He would smile at me with a look that reminded me it’s a tough world out there. I consider him a[n] elegantly sophisticated counterpart … ”

Plenty of others have downplayed the Russian invasion threat and suggested it has been manufactured to distract from other unrelated issues the Biden administration is facing. Chief among them was Fox’s Maria Bartiromo, who as recently as last week asked whether the whole thing might be an elaborate “ruse.” Owens, too, made that point a month ago — saying there was “quite literally no Russian threat” — before arriving at the idea that the threat is real, but is somehow our fault.

To be clear, there is a difference between questioning the need to get involved in Ukraine and praising Putin or suggesting Putin isn’t to blame for what’s taking place. And the commentary from some of the most prominent Republicans and conservatives has erred in that latter direction. With the likes of Trump and others, the Putin praise is often unaccompanied by any moral judgments.

Given that — and especially given Carlson’s commentary — it’s probably worth noting what they’re waving away in the process. It might be true that Putin hasn’t come to your house and called you a racist, but that’s generally not the standard for deciding whether someone is a nefarious person or leader.

To wit:

  • Russia routinely ranks among the worst countries for human rights abuses. The State Department under Trump highlighted numerous abuses, including a United Nations working group having cited “867 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the country”; numerous extrajudicial killings and reports of “mass torture” of LGBTQ people in Chechnya; the poisonings of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal; and “pervasive torture by government law enforcement officers that sometimes resulted in death.”
  • Putin in 2005 called the dissolution of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical” disaster of the 20th century, and his comments have repeatedly invited suggestions that he’s trying to restore it — though he and his aides have labeled that unrealistic.
  • Russia taking over Ukraine would restore its influence in a massive Eastern European country and bring it to the border of several NATO countries, with unpredictable consequences for U.S. allies and the global supply chain. While the United States has made clear it’s not sending combat troops to Ukraine, a number of former Soviet republics are in NATO and worry about further attempted Russian territorial expansion. If it expanded to them, it would legally trigger a military response by the United States and others under Article 5 of NATO.
  • Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea violated an agreement reached with Ukraine and the United States — the Budapest Memorandum — which stated that the countries that signed it would respect “the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and refrain “from the threat or use of force” against its borders. Invading now also violates the agreement, even as it doesn’t necessitate a particular response.

Thus far, this particular posture hasn’t permeated the GOP base, which views our obligation to Ukraine in a somewhat similar light as the Democratic base. And while Republicans do like Putin better than President Biden in some polls, that’s mostly a matter of them really not liking Biden at all. (The numbers were somewhat similar for Democrats on Putin and George W. Bush, for example.)

But we’ve already seen how these views can shift over time. And right now, the loudest conservative voices are talking about Putin and the Russian threat in a far different way than anyone might have foreseen just a decade ago. They’re also doing so largely unchecked by their side of the political aisle, and at a time in which logically hardening views might actually come to matter.