President Trump’s praise Friday for Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian rule in North Korea — and his apparent envy that people there “sit up at attention” when the 35-year-old dictator speaks — marked an escalation of the American president’s open embrace of totalitarian leaders around the world.
It was unclear whether Trump was referring to Americans generally or only to his staff. His interview took place along the West Wing driveway, and as the president talked about “my people,” he gestured toward the White House.
Later, when pressed by a CNN reporter about the comment, Trump claimed it had been a joke. “I’m kidding,” he said. “You don’t understand sarcasm.”
Whether jesting or not, no U.S. president has been as free in his admiration of dictators and absolute power as the 45th, historians say. And Trump’s interest in the subject seems to be growing as he becomes better acquainted with some of the world’s authoritarian leaders, including Kim, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump said he may try to meet one-on-one this summer.
“Trump has dictator envy,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “You start being more attracted to people like Kim and Putin because they look like they could be presidents for life. And if they have enemies, they don’t have to resort to [former president Richard M.] Nixon keeping an enemies list. You just destroy your enemies’ lives with a phone call. That’s attractive to Trump.”
Trump earlier this week declared the media to be “our country’s biggest enemy,” and he has repeatedly voiced his desire to punish journalists who air criticisms of him. Trump remarked during his Singapore trip about how positive a female news anchor was toward Kim on state-run North Korean television, and he joked that even Trump-friendly Fox News was not as lavish in its praise.
Trump condoned violence against protesters during his campaign rallies and as president has encouraged jailing his political opponents and perceived enemies, including former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and former FBI director James B. Comey. Trump also has embraced his presidential clemency powers as a mechanism to help some loyalists, personally undoing judgments of the judicial system that he considers unfair.
“Trump has been remarkably consistent as long as he’s been on the public stage in exhibiting authoritarian instincts,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University professor who recently co-authored a book on the subject, “How Democracies Die.”
He added, “Any time any society elects a leader with authoritarian impulses, it’s a risk for democracy, but the second half of the story is society’s and our institutions’ abilities to constrain him.”
Eliot A. Cohen, a Trump critic and senior State Department official under President George W. Bush, said Trump “has classic traits of the authoritarian leader. The one that’s always struck me most is this visceral instinct of people’s weaknesses and a corresponding desire to be seen as strong and respected and admired.”
During his visit to Singapore, Trump showered praise on Kim, calling him a “very talented man,” a “smart guy” and a “very good negotiator.” He also complimented Kim’s “great personality.”
Trump was more muted when it came to Kim’s record of human rights atrocities. The North Korean leader starves many of his citizens, sentences opponents to labor camps and executes people he perceives as threats to his power, including assassinating family members.
Asked at a news conference in Singapore how he could be comfortable calling a dictator with a murderous record “very talented,” Trump replied, “Well, he is very talented. Anybody that takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it and run it tough — I don’t say it was nice, or I don’t say anything about it. He ran it. Very few people at that age, you can take 1 out of 10,000, probably couldn’t do it.”
Trump’s posture is inconsistent with Republican orthodoxy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted that while Trump was “trying to butter him up to get a good deal,” Kim “is NOT a talented guy. He inherited the family business from his dad & grandfather. He is a total weirdo who would not be elected assistant dogcatcher in any democracy.”
Back home in Washington on Friday, when a reporter asked him why he had not more forcefully challenged Kim on human rights, Trump replied that he was trying to cultivate a friendship with him to avoid military conflict.
“I don’t want to see a nuclear weapon destroy you and your family,” Trump told the reporter.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) defended Trump’s approach, saying Friday on CNN, “If he believes buttering the guy up will get rid of his nuclear weapons, butter him up.”
Graham drew a comparison to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s handling of Russia’s human rights abuses during World War II.
“Remember World War II? Remember Joseph Stalin?” Graham said. “He was our key ally in defeating Hitler. The Soviets bled the Germans dry. I don’t think Churchill and Roosevelt went to Uncle Joe every day and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you, you know, why don’t you stop?’ ”
The White House on Friday released a video message from Trump touting what he views as a successful summit with Kim. In the film, which includes a montage of scenes featuring the two leaders, Trump said his trip was “worth every second,” adding, “If there’s a chance at peace, if there’s a chance to end the horrible threat of nuclear conflict, then we must pursue it at all costs.”
Trump kept up his praise of Kim in an interview Friday with “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy. He noted that he gave Kim “a very direct number” and instructed him to “call me if he has any difficulties.”
“We have a really great relationship for the first time ever,” Trump said. “No president’s ever had this. So I get hit by these fakes back here” — he pointed dismissively to a group of journalists who were gathered behind him at the White House on the North Lawn driveway — “not all of them, some are phenomenal, but I get hit because I went there, I gave him credibility. I think it’s great to give him credibility.”
Amy Zegart, director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said Trump’s embrace of authoritarians “is a jagged and dangerous departure” in American foreign policy.
“What makes Trump’s comments so disturbing is that they reveal a president who believes in projecting American power but not American values — he believes in might but not right,” said Zegart, who co-authored with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice a book about global insecurity, “Political Risk.”
Trump’s critics pointed to his salute of one of Kim’s generals — footage of which was released Thursday by North Korean state media in a documentary film about the summit — as evidence of the national security risks in his behavior.
The video captured a brief interaction that was not seen by U.S. journalists. A North Korean general saluted Trump, and the president saluted him in return. It is highly unusual for a U.S. president to return the salute of a foreign military officer. Some analysts said Kim’s government was likely to use the image in its propaganda campaigns as a victory for Pyongyang because it suggests the American commander in chief defers to the North Korean military.
Trump defended his salute in his Friday interview with Fox.
“I met a general,” he said. “He saluted me, and I saluted him back. I guess they’re using that as another sound bite. You know, I think I’m being respectful to the general.”