The former president apparently did not receive the memo.
During a lengthy interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday night, Hannity played a role he’s become extremely familiar with: Trying to drag Trump into saying the right thing. In this case, the fact is that Putin is “evil” or an “enemy”. Ninety percent of Americans, after all, dislike Putin in new poll – and 86% view it “very unfavourably”. So it’s a kind of slam-dunk, politically. And that would certainly help Trump’s fellow Republicans, who have gone out of their way to assure that they view Putin as evil, even though Trump has not.
But Trump, true to form, didn’t take the hint. On several occasions, Hannity tried to goad Trump into calling Putin evil or something related to it. And on several occasions, Trump has refused the advance, instead focusing on collateral issues. When he lamented the atrocious scenes in Ukraine, he simply referred to it as something “sad” or regrettable happening, rather than tying it to Putin.
“You see what’s going on with Vladimir Putin,” Hannity began. “He invaded a sovereign country. You see that a maternity ward was hit yesterday. You see that entire neighborhoods have been razed. We showed some pictures. There was a mass grave of about 70 people. We have seen dead men, women and children on the streets of Ukraine. Your reaction to what you see? »
In response, Trump called the situation “sad.” But rather than talk about “what’s going on with Vladimir Putin,” Trump instead reaffirmed that it wouldn’t have happened on his watch. He also suggested that the invasion was a function of weak American leadership.
Trump’s only mention of Putin: “And I know him well, and that was not something that was going to happen at all.”
Not having gotten the answer he was hoping for with his broad question, Hannity tried to probe deeper. He even, during his question, tried to exclude Trump’s stock market response that this wouldn’t have happened under Trump.
“I’m going to come back to the question of why Putin wouldn’t if you were president,” Hannity said helpfully. “You came under fire when you said Vladimir Putin was very smart. I think I know you a little better than most people in the media, and I think you also recognize that he’s evil, don’t you? »
Trump did not answer the question directly. When he addressed Putin, he suggested that somehow it was not in the character of the guy he knew.
“That doesn’t seem like the same Putin I was dealing with,” Trump said. “But I’ll tell you, he wouldn’t have changed if I had dealt with him, he wouldn’t have changed.”
One could infer that Trump meant Putin got worse — maybe even the really bad or bad — but that wasn’t indicated in the kind of soundbite Hannity was looking for. And Trump even seemed to say… maybe Putin wasn’t so bad before?
Hannity, however, was undeterred. Having failed to get Trump to say “evil”, he instead tried for “the enemy”. He suggested that perhaps Trump was, as his son suggested and Sun Tzu wrote, keeping his friends close and his enemies closer.
“Have you seen Vladimir Putin and people like President Xi [Jinping] and Kim Jong Un and the Iranian mullahs as enemies you should keep close?
Hannity: What about Putin and all the other dictators in the world?
Trump: “I got along well with those people. I got on well with them… I understood them. And maybe they understood me. Perhaps they understood me even better. Its good.”
Via @Acyn: pic.twitter.com/cPnLbMPAC8
— Tim O’Brien (@TimOBrien) March 11, 2022
Rather than saying whether he viewed Putin or the others as “enemies”, Trump said: “I got along with those people. I got along with them. That doesn’t mean they’re good people. It doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that I understood them and maybe they understood me.
Hannity then tried again. He wanted to know if Trump at least considered leaders like Putin to be “capable of bad things.”
But Trump instead focused on another part of Hannity’s question, saying, “Putin is for Russia. And you see what happened. And that’s all because they didn’t respect our leader.
At this point, it was impossible to believe Trump didn’t understand what Hannity was trying to get him to do. Hannity asked Trump if Putin was “bad,” an “enemy” and ultimately just “capable of bad things.” Trump claimed none.
Throughout the interview, Trump spoke about the horrors of what is happening in Ukraine. But just like in that sentence, he talked about it as if it was just about things that happened – not things done by any particular person or leader. When he talked about what Putin was doing, it was about how Putin could do “very bad things” in the future.
He ultimately called it all a “crime against humanity” — apparently committed by, well, someone.
“So something’s got to happen, Sean,” Trump said. “This cannot continue. It’s a crime. And it really is a crime against humanity. This is something that must end, and it must end soon.
“The problem with Putin: he has a very big ego. And if he finishes now, in most forms, if he finishes now, it’s going to look like a big loss for him, even if he takes a little longer ground.”
This all fits 100% with the way Trump has been talking about Putin for a long time. It’s praising Putin as a strong leader, not to mention how Putin abused his power. It is comparing Putin’s human rights abuses to ours. He almost always talks about these things in strategic or pragmatic terms, and almost never superimposes them on moral judgments or an attribution of personal guilt.
But if there was ever a time when this approach was to be abandoned – giving up attempts to suggest that Putin is misunderstood or simply looking out for his own interests and is some sort of legitimate player on the world stage – it would surely be that. Even if Trump doesn’t believe it, it’s the obvious political game. When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sean Hannity are so blatantly trying to push you in that direction, it would seem to send a message. When the few allies who actually venture to defend your comments about Putin’s strategic acumen themselves emphasize the caveat that Putin is “evil,” does that ring a bell?