From Vladimir Putin to Saddam Hussein, President Donald Trump has a long history of regularly and openly expressing admiration for a rogues’ gallery of foreign dictators and authoritarians.
Trump’s soft spot for strongmen was on display again Monday, when he phoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on winning a referendum designed to dismantle the country’s democratic infrastructure. In fairness, Erdogan pushed back on Tuesday, conceding in a CNN exclusive interview that his death – “I am a mortal, I could die at any time” – would end his rule.
The White House readout of the call made no mention of the ongoing crackdown in Turkey, where Erdogan has targeted opposition figures, journalists and other elements of civil society in the aftermath of a failed coup last year. A senior Trump administration official told CNN the call skirted the controversy surrounding the referendum and, apart from a “simple congrats,” mostly focused on Syria.
Some vocal segments of the domestic political establishment and anti-Trump pundits responded to news of the conversation with shock and dismay. But if anyone is surprised, well, then they obviously haven’t been paying much attention the past two years – or weeks, for that matter.
Fourteen days earlier, Trump celebrated Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, another Middle Eastern autocrat, during a White House meeting in which he promised a “very long and strong relationship.” He then tweeted a scrapbook’s worth of photos documenting the visit.
For Trump, the recipe is simple. If his counterparts are committed to fighting ISIS and complimentary of the President personally, then the conversation all but stops there. (Note: This is not uncommon in the annals of American diplomacy. Trump’s predecessors regularly backed assorted autocrats and dictators, though rarely with such gusto.)
Again, this shouldn’t come as breaking news. Hillary Clinton discussed it at some length during the 2016 campaign.
“I will leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his attraction to tyrants,” she said during a speech last June.
Among those unsavory figures to have enjoyed a place in Trump’s good graces:
While Trump is hardly alone in suggesting American-backed regime change has done more harm than good in the Middle East, his assessment of Hussein’s crimes sounds almost approving.
“Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy,” he said in December 2015, dismissing a March 1988 poison gas attack that killed more than 5,000 Kurds living in northern Iraq. About 15 months later, Trump would order missile strikes on the Syrian regime, one his administration had signaled just days earlier it had no plans to contest, in response to a chemical attack on its own people.
In an October 2015 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump praised Hussein. The former Iraqi leader “would kill the terrorists immediately,” he said, “now it’s the Harvard of terrorism.”
Trump revived the Ivy League comparison in July 2016. After calling Hussein “a bad guy,” he added: “But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.”
Kim Jong Un
Like with the since-deposed and executed Iraqi dictator, Trump in January 2016 first called North Korea’s Kim a “maniac,” then riffed with some awe on the young despot’s bloody rise to power.
“You have to give him credit,” Trump said.
“How many young guys – he was like 26 or 25 when his father died – take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden – you know, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it. How does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it’s a cultural thing, 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. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.”
A few months later, the Obama administration added Kim’s country to its sanctions list for human rights abuses.
“Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor and torture,” Adam J. Szubin, a top Treasury Department official, said in a statement.
Trump has since adopted a stricter line with Pyongyang. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence told CNN’s Dana Bash, “The era of strategic patience is over,” effectively dispensing with the international consensus on how to best deal with North Korea and its nuclear capabilities.
The reversal comes after what Trump has called a successful first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who as the President recalled took “10 minutes” to explain why the North Korean situation is “not so easy.”
Trump often paired the former Libyan dictator with Hussein during the campajgn as a means of attacking Clinton, who voted in the Senate to authorize military force against the Hussein and backed military intervention against Gadhafi during her turn as secretary of state. When Libya emerged as a second home to ISIS fighters flushed out of Syria and Iraq, he offered plainly, “we would be so much better off if Gadhafi were in charge right now.”
“If these politicians went to the beach and didn’t do a thing, and we had Saddam Hussein and if we had Gadhafi in charge, instead of having terrorism all over the place, we’d be – at least they killed terrorists, all right,” he said during a GOP primary debate.
“And I’m not saying they were good because they were bad, they were really bad, but we don’t know what we’re getting,” he continued, adding the usual caveat. “You look at Libya right now, ISIS, as we speak, is taking over their oil. As we speak, it’s a total mess.”
Gadhafi ruled Libya from September 1969 up until his killing by rebel forces following the NATO-led intervention in 2011. His repressive regime killed thousands of its own people and, for decades, was a leading state terror sponsor.
Over the course of a campaign and young presidency spent promising to reclaim America’s standing in a world Trump claims has come to mock it, Russia’s Vladimir Putin – a former Soviet KGB officer turned autocratic president – repeatedly emerged as a kind of beacon.
“He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said on MSNBC in December 2015, a day after Putin, in his annual press conference, called the billionaire “an outstanding and talented personality” who had emerged as “the absolute leader of the presidential race.”
It wasn’t Trump’s first time praising the Russian leader. After recalling with some pleasure that they had once appeared on the same highly rated episode of “60 Minutes,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation” in October 2015 that a meeting could be fruitful.
“I think that I would at the same time get along very well with him,” Trump said of Putin. “He does not like Obama at all. He doesn’t respect Obama at all. And I’m sure that Obama doesn’t like him very much. But I think that I would probably get along with him very well. And I don’t think you’d be having the kind of problems that you’re having right now.”
Trump’s bromantic inclinations toward Putin have been tempered over the past couple months, as the probe into Russia’s alleged election meddling festered, and then in the aftermath of the Syrian chemical attack. But even as he conceded last week that US-Russian relations “may be at an all-time low,” he is still holding out hope.
“It would be wonderful,” Trump said at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, “if NATO and our country could get along with Russia.”
Trump stopped short of endorsing Mussolini’s governing style, but couldn’t deny his attraction to a quote widely attributed to the World War II-era Italian fascist leader and staunch ally of Adolph Hitler.
In February 2016, the candidate retweeted a parody account created by a Gawker writer that had assigned the line to Trump himself: “@ilduce2016: ‘It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep. – @realDonaldTrump”
Hours later, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Trump, “Do you like the quote? Did you know it was Mussolini?”
“Sure,” Trump replied. “It’s OK to know it’s Benito Mussolini. Look, Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s OK. It’s a very good quote. It’s a very interesting quote. And I saw it and I know who said it. But what difference does it make, whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”