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.
Before he entered politics, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a professional comedian. Former US President Donald Trump, on the other hand, just plays a bad one at GOP gatherings.
We saw this on Saturday night during a two-day event for top Republican National Committee donors. With the world watching in horror as Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashes hell upon the Ukrainian people, Trump had the chance to share his vision with the GOP elite on how he would handle the situation.
Did Trump, who appears to be gearing up for a run again in 2024, lay out a detailed, well-researched, militarily sound plan to counter Putin? Of course not. Instead, he thought this would be a good time to crack a joke, despite heart-wrenching images of Ukrainians being bombed and fleeing for their lives.
According to a recording of the speech obtained by The Washington Post, Trump told the audience of GOP donors that the United States should “put the Chinese flag” on F-22 fighter jets and “bomb the s**t” out of Russia. He quipped, “And then we say, China did it. Then they start fighting with each other, and we sit back and watch.”
The Post reports that the audience responded with laughter, which is baffling. This is the type of joke a second-rate comedian would make in a crappy comedy club in New Jersey on a weeknight – not the words of a former President of the United States. But apparently to Trump, joking about a conflict where people are fighting for their lives against a nuclear superpower is a real knee-slapper.
At least Trump didn’t praise Putin, like he did the week before at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where he told the audience of Republicans that Putin was “smart.” At the time Trump made that remark, Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine had been raging for days. The media was flooded with reports of civilians being killed, while well over 100,000 Ukrainians had fled the nation. What’s worse, Trump’s accolades for Putin at CPAC were on the heels of more praise for the Russian leader, whom Trump despicably described as a “genius” and “savvy” just before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Contrast that with Zelensky, a trained actor and comedian who starred as a president in the Ukrainian political satire series “Servant of the People.” When Zelensky was a performer, reports are he was very funny – writing and starring in comedic films and even voicing Paddington Bear for the Ukrainian version of the hit 2014 film and its 2017 sequel.
But this professional comedian, who was elected president of Ukraine in 2019, fully understands that in the time of a brutal war the world needed leadership – not bad attempts at comedy. That explains Zelensky’s response when asked about an offer by the US to evacuate him. “The fight is here,” Zelensky said, adding the now iconic line: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Since then, the 44-year-old Ukrainian chief of state has given the world a master class in leading a resistance against a malignant bully. The latest example came Saturday morning when Zelensky addressed members of our Congress via Zoom to make his case for more assistance.
Zelensky made an impassioned plea for the US to impose more stringent economic sanctions on Russia. And he renewed his call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over his nation of over 40 million people. Zelensky also urged the US to facilitate the delivery of fighter aircraft to Ukraine from the inventory of our NATO allies in the region. A White House spokesperson confirmed later Saturday that the administration is working with Poland – a member of NATO – on the possibility that nation would provide fighter jets to Ukraine.
In contrast, Trump slammed NATO on Saturday after “joking” about putting Chinese flags on American F-22 fighter jets. According to a CBS News report, he appeared to suggest a military escalation involving American troops and NATO allies against Russia, stating, “Are all of these nations going to stand by and watch perhaps millions of people be slaughtered as the onslaught continues? … We can’t let it happen.”
Trump suddenly growing a spine in dealing with Putin can likely be traced to the criticism he received the night before at the same GOP donors event by his former vice president, Mike Pence. While not mentioning Trump by name, Pence bluntly stated, “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin. There is only room for champions of freedom.”
But Trump was not done with the “jokes” Saturday, as he went on to praise another ruthless dictator: North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Trump, who has a long history of heaping kind words on autocrats, reportedly said of Kim Jong-un, “he’s absolutely the leader of that country,” adding that when he talked, his advisors “cowered” and “stood up so fast.” Trump then “joked,” per The Washington Post: “I want my people to act like that.”
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Any global political figure should understand that there’s a time to bring levity, and then there are times that demand sobering leadership. That’s especially true in moments like these with a horrific war raging and the specter of a potential world war looming.
Zelensky, the professional comedian, knows this, while Trump – a man desperate for attention – is selfishly clueless. That’s why Zelensky is on the world stage being praised as a leader while Trump is a twice-impeached President telling bad jokes to a room full of GOP donors.