Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
With much of the world united in horror over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine – a brutal assault that has killed many, including children, and has created a growing refugee crisis – you’d think it would be hard to find a global political figure speaking highly of him.
But you’d be wrong. On Saturday, former President Donald Trump took the stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (“CPAC”) and did what he has done for years: He praised Vladimir Putin.
“Yesterday, reporters asked me if I thought President Putin was smart. I said, ‘of course he’s smart,’” Trump told the crowd, doubling down on comments he’d made earlier in the week that Putin is “savvy” and a “genius.”
Trump did criticize the Russian invasion, telling the CPAC audience that “the Russian attack on the Ukraine is appalling … an outrage and an atrocity that should never have been allowed to occur.” But what Trump didn’t do was slam Putin point-blank as a ruthless dictator who the world must unite to defeat. He didn’t use his speech to call for greater sanctions, or for Putin to be potentially charged for war crimes. He didn’t make an impassioned plea in defense of Ukrainian democracy – or more broadly, in support of all democracies that are under threat.
Instead, Trump blamed the attack on President Joe Biden, who has led a broad coalition of nations to impose sanctions on Russia and Putin himself. “The problem is not that Putin is smart,” Trump said. “The problem is that our leaders are dumb… Putin is playing Biden like a drum.”
We all get politics. Trump appears to be preparing for another run in 2024, and his trying to score political points at Biden’s expense is what political figures do. But Trump is no typical political figure.
Trump has a well-detailed history of praising not just Putin but other leaders who have rejected democracy and embraced autocracy — from China’s President Xi Jinping to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Trump’s past words as president — and still today as effectively the GOP leader — matter in setting a tone for his party and for millions of Americans who admire him. Praising dictators is the opposite of what Trump should be doing, especially as Putin is waging a war to extinguish a democracy.
Over the years, Trump has curiously and repeatedly defended Putin in response to allegations of the Russian leader’s misconduct. For example, during a 2015 interview, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough alleged that the Russian leader “kills journalists that don’t agree with him.” Trump responded, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader. … I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe.”
Even as POTUS, Trump defended Putin against claims of wrongdoing. In a February 2017 interview with Bill O’Reilly, when O’Reilly criticized Putin as “a killer,” Trump snapped back: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” The next year, at a 2018 summit in Helsinki, Trump infamously sided with Putin over US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in our 2016 election.
We are at a precarious time in the history of our democratic republic, and for all democracies around the world. That’s why President Biden has been ringing alarm bells about the global battle between democracy and autocracy since he came to office. In February 2021, Biden held “The Summit for Democracy,” where he urged the world to understand that “democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”
There’s another line from his first press conference back in March 2021 that has stayed with me ever since: “I predict to you your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake.”
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Those are indeed the stakes. Today’s war waged by Russia is the manifestation of that very battle between autocracy and democracy that Biden warned us about. No American who believes in democracy would ever praise Putin amid his deadly assault on the sovereign nation of Ukraine, nor would they support a political figure who does.
But that is exactly what Trump did Saturday at CPAC, and it should disgust every American patriot, regardless of political affiliation. But it didn’t. On Sunday, nearly 60% of CPAC attendees said they would vote for Trump if the 2024 Republican primary were held today. That should concern all who support democracy over autocracy.