Donald Trump’s regular praise for authoritarian governments and dictators has come under fresh scrutiny this week following his latest laudatory comments about the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose human rights abuses and support for international terrorism made him a top enemy of the United States for decades.
“He was a bad guy, really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good,” Trump said during a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday evening. “They didn’t read them the rights — they didn’t talk, they were a terrorist, it was over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism. You want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq. It’s like Harvard. Okay? So sad.”
The remarks have revived worries among Republican lawmakers and members of the party’s foreign-policy establishment, many of whom have become increasingly despondent over Trump’s loose and threatening rhetoric on international relations. Many critics in both parties also say that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee is laying out an alarmingly dark worldview that should give voters serious pause.
“This follows a disturbing trend of Trump relating to the way brutal tyrants executed policy in their countries. I do think that there’s something dark about Trump’s view of the world,” said Republican strategist Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush aide who has played an active role in the anti-Trump movement. “When a person running for president continually compliments brutal, undemocratic dictators and their methods, I think it’s fair to have some concerns that those are methods that they might be interested in deploying if necessary.”
Trump commented on Hussein’s record several times throughout the Republican primary season, saying that Iraq would have been better off if he were still in power in part because of his brutal tactics against dissenters. He also spoke dismissively in December about Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds: “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy. ‘Oh he’s using gas!’ ”
Trump has also repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as “strong” leaders “unlike what we have in this country,” citing the control they have over their people. When Putin complimented Trump last year, Trump called it “a great honor,” and pranksters have painted murals in several cities showing the two men kissing.
In January, he also mused favorably about the North Korean strongman’s brutal consolidation of power in the country.
“If you look at North Korea, this guy, I mean, he’s like a maniac, okay? And you’ve got to give him credit,” Trump said during a campaign event in Iowa. “He goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one.”
Kim was formally sanctioned by the United States for human rights violations Wednesday.
Trump’s comments regarding Hussein this week were met with particular furor, in part because the race has effectively entered the general election phase and because of Hussein’s brutal record and long history of conflict with the United States, including a failed attempt to assassinate then-President George H.W. Bush.
“Trump’s past comments on this were overshadowed by other crazier, wackier, more offensive things, but it stood out yesterday,” Miller said.
The Clinton campaign released a statement by senior Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan that took Trump’s foreign-policy judgment to task — and sought to provide cover for Clinton amid the fallout over the FBI’s findings about her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has endorsed Trump, distanced himself forcefully from the candidate’s Hussein comments. “He was one of the 20th century’s most evil people. He was up there. He committed mass genocide against his own people using chemical weapons,” Ryan said on Fox News Channel late Tuesday.
Among other Republicans, Trump’s staunchest backers offered a full-throated defenses while others kept their distance Wednesday.
“His comment was just a factual comment that Saddam Hussein did not have a terrorist problem,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders in Congress. “But the void created when he was deposed and then Barack Obama had no plan afterwards was the beginning of ISIS.”
Other Republicans were more skeptical.
“Well I’m certainly not going to disagree with anybody that said Saddam Hussein did a lot of bad things. But he killed a lot of people — not just terrorists. So, he was no friend of the United States,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a Trump supporter.
Cole added: “I don’t have any doubt that anybody looking at Saddam Hussein’s record would recognize what a terrifically evil person he was. And the world’s better off without him.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a national security hawk who supports Trump nominally, offered a brief response. “I supported the war in Iraq. And I’ll leave it at that,” King said.
On foreign policy, the real estate mogul has fashioned an unconventional, hybrid “America First” posture that alternates between promises to stay out of overseas conflicts and vows to kill terrorists en masse and target their families.
He routinely claims — falsely — that he was always against the Iraq War, blasting other Republicans for the conflict and knocking Clinton for advocating additional interventions in Libya and Syria that he also once praised. He often blames the United States — and in particular George W. Bush’s administration — for destabilizing the Middle East with the 2003 Iraq invasion.
But he has also promised to “bomb the [expletive]” out of the Islamic State in Syria and has signaled his support for sending a larger contingent of American soldiers into the Middle East.
Trump’s free-wheeling rhetoric on foreign policy has presented tangible problems for his campaign, which has struggled to court respected foreign-policy minds. Many fear that their professional reputations would be damaged if they joined the Trump operation.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s latest remarks on Hussein. But in a March presidential debate, Trump was confronted over similar comments by CNN’s Jake Tapper, who pressed him on his positive remarks about authoritarian governments in China and Russia. Tapper asked Trump about his assertion in a 1990 Playboy interview that the Chinese government massacre of students in Tiananmen Square “shows you the power of strength.”
Trump distanced himself from the suggestion that he had endorsed the crackdown but would not back down when Tapper noted that “strong” is most often used as a compliment.
“That doesn’t mean I was endorsing that. I said that was a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. They kept down the riot, it was a horrible thing,” Trump responded, wrongly labeling the peaceful demonstration as a riot. “It doesn’t mean at all I was endorsing it,” Trump responded. “As far as Putin is concerned, I think Putin has been a very strong leader for Russia. He’s been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you. I mean, for Russia.”