Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Given the chance, former President Donald Trump took the headline-grabbing route and declared Russian leader Vladimir Putin “very savvy” and his decision to roll his army into separatist-held parts of Ukraine “genius.”
It’s hard to know if the former President could have said anything more disturbing as Russia bullies a much smaller country. But it’s certain that as he sided with America’s opponent, he was being true to himself.
Leaders of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic have condemned Putin’s unprovoked and unjustified aggression. With his forces arrayed to Ukraine’s north, east, and south, the autocrat talks about Ukraine’s past status as a Russian colony as he gins up domestic support for war.
Noting Putin’s strategy of falsely calling his troops “peacekeepers,” Trump told an interviewer, “that’s pretty savvy.” “That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen,” Trump said. “There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re going to keep peace, all right.” Trump has long admired strength above all else, and his new comments on Putin are fully consistent with his long-professed admiration for the Russian President.
He offered no words of condemnation for a regime threatening the worst military conflict in Europe since World War II. Instead, Trump violated an unwritten rule by attacking our current President as he struggled to deal with the war against one of America’s friends. Since everything is apparently about him, he claimed he would have handled this crisis better and took a further swipe at President Joe Biden, “This never would have happened with us,” said Trump who then added, that Biden is a “man that has no concept of what he’s doing.”
World War II is an apt reference point for anyone seeking the roots of Trump’s behavior. That war had ended the year before he was born, and it had shaped his mentor at the New York Military Academy, which he attended during his junior and senior high school years.
Theodore Dobias had served as an enlisted man in the allies’ ferocious campaign in Italy. When I interviewed him prior to his death in 2016, he said the “the blood, the screaming” remained fresh in his mind. At NYMA he taught boys to be fighters who respected strength. Trump would tell me Dobias “would rough you up” as he transmitted life lessons.
As former President and current leader of the Republican Party, Trump seems to have taught his political followers to respect Putin’s strength as he does. Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently called Putin “Very shrewd, very capable” adding, “I have enormous respect for him.” Some in Congress and in the Trump-supporting commentariat either used the moment to attack Biden or take Russia’s side in a conflict Putin began when he invaded Ukraine in 2014, simply seizing control of Crimea.
To be fair to Pompeo, he has also painted Ukrainians as victims in this crisis, but the fact that any American leader would use this state of emergency to express admiration for Putin and to attack Biden is anathema to America’s political tradition. As retired General Barry McCaffrey put it, Putin is a “murderous thug.” Any praise for him should be compared with the old observation that the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini made Italy’s trains run on time. (In fact, he didn’t achieve this feat, but the expression has been used to justify admiration for strongmen.)
If anything could be more un-American than offering praise for an authoritarian as he invades a weaker democratic nation that is friendly to the United States, it might be adding to this indecency a bit of whining about personal political concerns.
Yes, in the same interview Trump repeated his Big Lie about being cheated out of reelection in 2020. “Well, what went wrong was a rigged election,” said Trump. “What went wrong is a candidate that shouldn’t be there and a man that has no concept of what he’s doing.”
In addition to training much of the GOP to echo his Big Lie, Trump has led them to break with a long tradition of rallying behind the president in times of international conflict. With Biden repositioning our military to defend NATO allies that border Ukraine, America is clearly not on Putin’s side. Sadly, many prominent American politicians, led by Trump, seem to be.
This current crisis is only the latest skirmish in which democracy, as represented by the US, is confronting a rising threat of autocracy. As the American-based Freedom House think tank puts it, freedom is “under pressure” from around the world. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Trump, who has praised dictators many times, seems opposed to protecting certain democracies now. It is a travesty that demonstrates, once again, that he doesn’t grasp what America stands for – democracy, freedom, peace – and he is leading others to stand with him.