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Trump’s ‘tougher on Russia’ claim fits a pattern of striving to one-up Obama

Then-President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump talk to members of the media during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 10, 2016. (Jabin Botsford)

To hear President Trump tell it, he is tougher than former president Barack Obama. He is smarter than Obama — more shrewd, more effective, more respected. The 45th president is, by his own accounting, superlative to the 44th in almost every way.

In private and in public, while devising policies and while crafting messages, Trump frequently draws flattering comparisons with his predecessor — and he does not let the truth intrude, as was the case Tuesday.

“I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts,” Trump tweeted.

The facts suggest the opposite, as Trump has repeatedly doubted the conclusions of his own U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election and has sought to undermine the FBI’s investigation of the matter.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Feb. 20 said President Trump “has been extremely tough on Russia.” (Video: Reuters)

On Russia and a host of other issues, aides and advisers say, Trump’s near-compulsion with measuring himself against Obama reflects an innate need to be judged superior to his peers and to have a singular opponent to target.

“For the president, it’s all about performance, and when you look at performances, it’s about comparison to other players, other competitors,” said Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend and chief executive of Newsmax. “Who’s the guy everybody’s going to compare him to? His predecessor. He just gets that intuitively, as a business guy and a bottom-line guy.”

Trump has used Obama as a foil since stepping onto the political scene in 2011, when the New York developer-reality television star became the public face of birtherism by advancing a racially tinged falsehood about Obama’s birthplace. Trump’s birther crusade helped fuel his own presidential rise as he surfed the populist wave that distrusted Obama.

The Washington Post examines how, more than a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject evidence that Russia supported his run for the White House. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Thomas LeGro, John Parks, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post, Photo: "Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The strategy also puts him back into campaign mode, a place where the self-described “counterpuncher” is most comfortable, echoing lines of attack that moved his most fervent supporters to cheers.

“If you watch Trump, he understands that there are two ways to be really tall, and one is to have your opponent be really short,” said Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and a Trump ally. “He spends a fair amount of his time shrinking his opponents.”

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With some exceptions, presidents generally are deferential to their predecessors and loathe to attack them or even to draw unkind comparisons. Obama has largely refrained from hitting back at Trump, though he has made his difference known, sometimes sharply, at moments he views as consequential for the nation and its character.

But, Gingrich added, Trump views Obama through a different, more competitive lens.

“He sees Obama as still one of the people around whom the other side organizes,” Gingrich said. “I don’t think he sees him as a former president. He sees him as a powerful symbol of the left-wing opposition to Trump.”

Trump’s self-comparisons to Obama come in nearly every realm, and range from the substantive to the superficial. He often exaggerates the truth, brushes over nuance, and engineers his own reality.

“He realizes the power of the hatred of Obama,” said Tommy Vietor, a former Obama White House aide who co-hosts the “Pod Save America” podcast. “I do think Trump just started showing up to rallies and riffing, and the things people liked the most became his policies. The go-to move became to attack Obama. That’s his greatest hit.”

Trump seizes upon every piece of economic data that he can find to try to portray his presidency as more financially enriching for voters, even though the U.S. economy has been growing for more than nine years and many experts — and voters — credit Obama for playing a role in that trend.

On Russia, Trump has repeatedly claimed toughness in comparison with Obama. His insistence on that score Tuesday was echoed a few hours later by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who told reporters, “He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined.”

To be sure, experts have criticized aspects of Obama’s Russia record, and veterans of the last administration have said they regretted not doing more to combat the Kremlin’s influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s reaction has been to attack intelligence officials for their conclusions, to fire the FBI director and to block Washington’s efforts to punish Moscow. After Russian President Vladi­mir Putin denied that his country had tried to influence the campaign, Trump initially said he took him at his word.

Then there are some of Trump’s previous proclamations, including that he has better “chemistry” with Putin than Obama, and that he hopes he and Putin forge a mutually beneficial partnership.

Fact Checker: Trump’s claim that he’s done ‘far more’ that Obama in the fight against ISIS

On issues of national security and foreign affairs in general, Trump has a consistent theme: He is stronger and more resolute than Obama, and therefore Americans are safer. He has boasted that the nation’s borders are more secure than under Obama, that the U.S. strategy with North Korea is more effective and that the reach of Islamic State terrorists is diminished.

“We’ve done more against ISIS in nine months than the previous administration has done during its whole administration — by far, by far,” Trump said last October at a gathering of conservative activists.

On some level, Trump’s disdain for Obama is visceral, said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant and former political adviser. “He sees himself as being strong, decisive and bold, and he sees Obama as being weak and vacillating and tentative,” Stone said.

Even on more trivial matters, Trump draws unflattering comparisons between himself and his predecessor. Indeed, foreign leaders have become so attuned to Trump’s desire to best Obama that they have literally rolled out red carpets — and planned elaborate state visits — to try to curry favor with his administration.

During a trip to Asia last fall, leaders in Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam all feted and pampered Trump. Chinese President Xi Jinping treated him to an opulent welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, which included cannon fire and a military honor guard. Trump later boasted about his reception at a private meeting of House Republicans, saying only emperors had received the lavish treatment he’d received, according to one person familiar with his comments.

As a candidate, Trump attacked Obama for arriving in China and descending from Air Force One on metal steps that folded down from the belly of the aircraft, rather than from a grander staircase at the upper level of the plane and onto a red carpet.

“Terrible!” Trump tweeted, summarizing the incident.

Asian leaders roll out the red carpet for Trump — and he loves it

On Tuesday, Trump also tried to argue that this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington was shaping up to be more “exciting” than during Obama’s presidency. “Big difference from those days when President Obama held the White House,” the president wrote.

In fact, CPAC generated major news coverage during the Obama years because it was an influential gathering spot for Republican presidential contenders and a showcase for the Obama resistance.

On the policy front, Trump has made undoing Obama-era achievements something of a North Star. His aides often couch legislative and regulatory ideas in terms of Obama, recognizing the president’s eagerness to undo his predecessor’s legacy.

Trump took office promising to repeal and replace the health-care law known as Obamacare, a goal he has not accomplished. He has stripped scores of environmental, financial and other federal regulations established by the Obama administration. And he rescinded Obama-era protections for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, thrusting his own party into a moral quandary that could help shape this fall’s midterm elections.

“It does seem to be the organizing principle of his presidency,” Vietor said. “Did Obama oppose this? Yes. Then I support it. Or the reverse.”

Two days after the 2016 election, Trump and Obama seemed to have reached a detente, when Trump and his wife, Melania, visited the Obamas at the White House. “A fantastic day in D.C.,” Trump tweeted, adding that he and Obama enjoyed a “great chemistry.”

But the armistice was short-lived.

Upon becoming president, Trump started to show off the trappings of his job, taking visitors into the Roosevelt Room and the Cabinet Room. He quickly alighted upon a favorite last stop, ushering guests into the Oval Office.

“Obama never used the Oval, but Trump is different,” the president would say, referring to himself in the third person as he often does, according to people who have witnessed the tours.

As his guests marveled at the space, Trump would press them, asking if Obama had ever shown them the West Wing’s inner sanctum.

When he was invariably told no, Trump appeared to beam with pride.

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.