And while Republicans were slow to walk away from it initially, it became something of a building rush. The highlight: Donald Trump Jr. now says his father’s repeated praise and legitimization of authoritarians like Putin only played these foreign leaders”like a violin.”
“He knew exactly how to play these guys,” insists the younger Trump.
It’s Guilfoyle’s birthday, so Junior got into party supplies early. He claims dad only praised Putin and Kim because he used psychological warfare against them: “He knew exactly how to play those guys, and he played them like a fiddle!” pic.twitter.com/4otuhtECKX
—Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) March 9, 2022
Let’s quickly deal with the veracity of this claim before we move on. Certainly, there is something to be said for strategic diplomacy. But to the extent that Trump’s actions legitimizing Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were a ruse, he was really committed to the bit. He even acted the same way in private. Also, the benefit of a trick like this usually requires not recognizing that it is a trick. Especially with the elder Trump aiming for the presidency again in 2024, it might not be a good idea to tell leaders who will likely still be in power in 2025 – there’s not much leadership turnover. in China, North Korea and Russia – that Trump wasn’t really that into them.
Which brings us to the why: why suddenly abandon the game (insofar as it was actually a game)? Because the game seems really, really badly played right now.
To see how toxic Republicans think Trump’s praise of Putin was, take a look at what a trio of McC’s said and did about it
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked about Trump’s comment last week and said, “What a ruthless thug President Putin is who just invaded another sovereign country and kill thousands of innocent people. This is President Putin.
Asked the same question on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) chastised Trump’s comments even more directly. McCarthy said: “I don’t think anything is smart or great about Putin. I think Putin is mean. He’s a dictator. And I think he’s killing people right now.
It’s remarkable, in that McCarthy has gone to great lengths to improve his relationship with Trump compared to his Senate counterpart, and he seems acutely aware of the extent to which Trump could torpedo his presidential bid if the Republicans took over Congress. Even Kevin McCarthy didn’t really mince words about it.
Finally — and perhaps most interestingly — came a new move from former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who is running for the Senate. Rather than simply offering an opposing view of Putin’s “genius” and “knowledge”, he actually makes his opponent’s defense of Trump’s comments an issue in his primary.
“As Ukrainians bled and died,” McCrory says in a new ad, “Congressman [Ted] Budd excused their killer.
Budd’s comments were more nuanced than Trump’s. Budd called Putin a “very smart actor” who had “strategic reasons” for the invasion, including a desire to “protect his southern flank”. But he also pointed out that Putin was “mean” – something Trump took great pains to avoid. McCrory, of course, doesn’t connect any of this to Trump — which would be suicide in a GOP primary — but it’s the logical extension of it. And in fact the McCrory isolate comments were made in the context of Budd defending Trumpwho supported him.
McCrory isn’t even the only Republican in the North Carolina primary who seems to find this attempt to nuance Putin’s opinion corrosive; in a little-noticed tweet, fellow hopeful Mark Walker tweeted two days after Trump’s comments that the “the undertones of Putin’s praise are insane.” McCrory isn’t exactly in the Trump mould, but Walker had bowed for Trump’s endorsement.
And the stampede has continued apace as opinions on Putin and Russia continue to deteriorate.
Yes, there are polls showing Republicans pretty much agreeing with Putin after he tried to help Trump win the 2016 election (37% had a favorable opinion of him at the time) to agreeing with Democrats that Putin is an outcast. But even that might be understating things.
The same poll described above – from the Economic and YouGov – has in recent days dug a little deeper into Putin’s views. The most striking numbers: Trump voters say by a 77% to 10% margin that Putin has committed war crimes in Ukraine. They also say 75-15 that he poses a “very serious threat” to the United States.
Both illustrate just how much distaste there is across partisan lines for the guy who Trump repeatedly said wasn’t worth bothering too much about — and with such statements inextricably conveyed legitimacy.
Of course, the defense of Trump’s comments will always be that he was talking strategy and terrific – not morality. He was simply pointing out that Putin knows what he is doing and should be taken seriously! (Even though Trump has almost always rather blatantly refused to superimpose moral judgments on that.)
Well, even if you accept this significant narrowing in scope, Trump’s comments haven’t aged particularly well. The same poll shows that only 40% of Republicans now view Putin as a “very strong” leader, down from a majority of 53% in January. Moreover, less than half of Republicans think Russia – with its vastly superior military – is winning its war against Ukraine.
So, even edited and clarified, Trump’s comments aren’t exactly pretty. And the result is a rare occasion when Republicans make it clear they want nothing to do with his stance on this.