Why Trump is cozying up to strongmen leaders

Updated 3:21 PM ET, Tue May 16, 2017

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(CNN)US President Donald Trump's affinity for authoritarian leaders across the globe has been one of the few constants during his chaotic first few months in office.

From Russian President Vladimir Putin to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Trump has gone out of his way to lavish praise on some of the world's most notorious strongmen.
On Tuesday, Trump welcomed one of them -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- to the White House.
The Turkish leader lands in Washington one month after winning a divisive referendum that critics say will grant Erdogan dictatorial powers back at home.
But Trump isn't shy about cozying up to controversial figures. Earlier this month, he said he'd be "honored" to meet North Korean despot Kim Jong Un "under the right circumstances." That came just weeks after Trump said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was doing a "fantastic job" during an Oval Office meeting.
It's not new for the US to turn a blind eye to totalitarian regimes in the name of political stability. But Trump's regard for leaders that many consider bad actors goes beyond that.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: 'I give him great credit'

Even before he congratulated Erdogan on the referendum win that will hand him sweeping new powers, Trump's position on Turkey raised eyebrows.
As a candidate, Trump praised Erdogan for his handling of a failed coup attempt despite a major crackdown on perceived opposition figures -- including journalists, educators, judges, and members of parliament.
During the campaign, Trump also admitted that his family's business interests in Turkey posed a conflict. And that was before revelations that his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had been lobbying for the country.
While some analysts say that Trump's comments are a worrying endorsement of authoritarianism, others suggest it's more reflective of his focus on fighting terror.
"You could see it as a strategy of saying, 'We're going to turn a blind eye to the state of your domestic politics, authoritarianism, human-rights abuses, in order to gain more cooperation on areas that matter to America' -- like security issues," Blaise Misztal, Director of National Security at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told CNN.
While Trump may be courting Erdogan as a vital ally in the fight against ISIS, it's not clear what that will look like in practice -- especially when it comes to the US's most effective proxy force -- the Kurds, seen by Turkey as the enemy.
Trump recently announced that Washington would provide arms to Syrian Kurds as part of the fight against ISIS, angering Turkey.
"In the last 100 days we've seen Trump's frustrations with governing in a democratic system, in trying to get things done," Misztal says. "If you're an autocrat, and you hold all the power, you can be much more efficient and effective. That's the sort of demonstration of power that Trump seems to appreciate."

President Vladimir Putin: 'Very much a leader'

Over the course of his campaign, Trump broke with long-standing US policy in his repeated praise of Putin. But the US leader has been on record complimenting his Russian counterpart since 2013, when Trump's Miss Universe pageant was held in Moscow. Since then, Trump has talked about Putin more than 80 times, according to a CNN KFile investigation.
"The extent to which he went out of his way to defend Vladimir Putin was astonishing, worrying and unprecedented," James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at UK-based Chatham House, told CNN.
Trump's statements stoked suspicion over his campaign's possible connection to Russian interference in the election. As such comments began to attract more scrutiny, Trump dialed back his language. And in January, he said he believed Russia was responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National committee. But Trump argued that a good relationship would be beneficial to the US.
"If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia," Trump said in a press conference on January 11.
"You can admire Trump's sentiment, but the devil is in the detail," Nixey said. "Getting on with the Kremlin and Putin is fine in theory, but difficult in practice. And it requires giving in to what Russia wants, a freer hand in Ukraine and the Middle East, for example."
Trump will meet with Putin for the first time since he took office as part of the G20 summit in Hamburg in July, according to Russian state media.

President Xi Jinping: 'A terrific person'

As a candidate, Trump did not hesitate to bash China. Trump accused Beijing of manipulating its currency and effectively stealing manufacturing jobs. He even charged that China had "raped" the US economy.
But when China's President Xi Jinping visited Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in April, the two leaders appeared to forge a "very good relationship." According to Trump, their planned 15-minute meeting stretched for hours.
The pair have a surprising amount in common, said Michel Hockx, Director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Just as Trump campaigned on "making America great again," Xi's mission is the great revival of the Chinese nation.
"On a personal level they seem to get along very well, the question is what are the policy repercussions going to be," Hockx told CNN.
For now, Trump seems to have decided to play down those other issues to focus on North Korea.
"Now he seems to be convinced that by placing other issues to the side and focusing solely on what China and Xi Jinping can do for the US on the North Korean issue, he can succeed in getting what he wants," Adam Cathcart, a North Korea expert at Leeds University in the UK, told CNN in an email.
Trump reiterated this change of tack during a "Fox and Friends" interview: "What, am I going to start a trade war with China in the middle of him working on a bigger problem with North Korea?"

President Kim Jong Un: 'Pretty smart cookie'

Trump recently broke with long-held tradition by suggesting he would sit down with the North Korean leader.
"If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it," Trump told Bloomberg News.
It was a marked departure from the hardline stance that previous US administrations have adopted with Pyongyang as the regime has sought to advance its nuclear ambitions.
But Trump has also refused to rule out a military solution to the standoff. The US recently directed a naval strike group to the region and deployed a new anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea.
"It seems to indicate that he's either freestyling, or that his administration thinks that Kim Jong Un would actually be interested in meeting as a kind of carrot for negotiating," Cathcart told CNN. "But there is an obvious dissonance with [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson's categorical statements that the US will not 'negotiate its way back to the negotiating table.'"
Trump had previously praised Kim to CBS as a "pretty smart cookie." Just a day before, speaking with Reuters, Trump expressed admiration for how Kim had handled ascension to power at such a young age.
But talks between the President and Kim seem unlikely after yet another ballistic missile was launched by North Korea over the weekend. North Korea said Monday the launch is proof they have a rocket capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and that they have the United States in "sighting range for strike."
Cathcart told CNN that any potential negotiations with the young leader could prove to be a minefield for Trump, opening the door for North Korea to demand recognition as a legitimate nuclear weapons state.
"There are dangers involved in getting what everyone thinks they want -- a grand US-North Korean bargain," Cathcart wrote.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: 'Fantastic guy'

Trump hosted Sisi at the White House in April, marking the first visit by an Egyptian leader since 2009.
The US President heaped praise on Sisi, signaling a significant shift from cooled US-Egypt relations under the Obama administration.
It was not the first time he had spoken highly of the Egyptian leader. In 2016, Trump hailed Sisi's counterterrorism policy in an interview with Fox Business. He called the Egyptian leader a "fantastic guy," adding that his "tough approach" had "gotten terrorists out (of Egypt)."
"Trump wants to be able to do whatever he likes. When he sees people abroad who have that power, he seems to be envious of that," Timothy E. Kaldas, an analyst at the Washington-based think tank the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told CNN.
"His fascination with Sisi has to do with his crushing Islamist groups," Kaldas said. "Trump wants to believe that these strong-arm tactics are the most effective, that the liberal call for restraint and respect for human rights are just getting in the way of the fight against terrorism."
But Misztal argued that human rights could come up behind closed doors.
"During Sisi's visit last month, while there was a lot of concern that there was no public mention of his human-rights record, Trump had secured the release of an American being held in an Egyptian prison," Misztal said. "Just because Trump hasn't said these things publicly, doesn't mean they're not being said in the background."

President Rodrigo Duterte: 'Very friendly' call

Trump recently extended a White House invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a "very friendly conversation," triggering an avalanche of criticism from human rights groups. Since taking office last year, Duterte has waged a bloody war on drugs that has left thousands dead and that human-rights groups say is a campaign of extrajudicial killings.
The White House said the call was part of an effort to rein in North Korea and stay engaged with US allies. The President "is interested in human-rights issues, but he's not going to allow that interest and concern to keep him from defending the national-security interests of the United States," a senior administration official told CNN.
The phone call is a departure from Duterte's relationship with Trump's predecessor, whom Duterte once called a "son of a bitch."
Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that while the call might be troubling considering Duterte's record on human rights, it's not surprising that Trump would speak with the leader of a treaty ally.
Kurlantzick said Duterte would probably accept the President's invitation to the White House eventually, but may not want to appear as though he is embracing the US, given how much he has courted China.
"Duterte has a very long, complex history of anti-Americanism, so just because Trump likes Duterte and his authoritarianism, it doesn't mean they're going to get along well," Kurlantzick added.