President Donald Trump in an interview to air Sunday said he respects Vladimir Putin, and when challenged that the Russian president is "a killer" pushed back that the U.S. is not innocent.Trump made the remarks to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly in an interview that will air before the Super Bowl.
A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post asked a provocative question: "Is President Trump surrendering America's moral high ground?" What's become painfully clear, however, is that as far as Donald Trump is concerned, the United States doesn't have any moral authority to forfeit.
In context, the Fox host asked the president why he respects Putin. "Well, I respect a lot of people," Trump said, "but that doesn't mean I'm going to get along with him."O'Reilly reminded Trump, "Putin's a killer," The U.S. president responded, "There are a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country's so innocent?"Americans generally aren't accustomed to hearing their president be quite this critical of the United States -- out loud and in public. What's more, the idea that the U.S. chief executive sees a moral equivalence between us and an autocratic thug came as a reminder that Donald Trump doesn't always hold his country in the highest regard.Indeed, while it's practically unheard of for an American president to blast his own country this way, let's not forget that Trump has invested quite a bit of time running down the United States, especially while defending Vladimir Putin.In December 2015, for example, then-candidate Trump was asked about Putin's habit of invading countries and killing critics. "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader," Trump replied, "unlike what we have in this country." Reminded that Putin has been accused of ordering the murder of critics and journalists, Trump added, "Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also."In a July interview with the New York Times, the Republican added that the United States lacks the moral authority to lead, because we're just not a good enough country to command respect abroad. "When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don't think we're a very good messenger," he said.Again, sentiments such as "When the world looks at how bad the United States is..." are usually heard from America's opponents, not America's president.When critics of U.S. foreign policy on the left made comments like these in the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans responded by condemning them as the "blame America first crowd." A generation later, it's a GOP president who's given up on the idea of the United States being a beacon of hope and "a shining city on a hill."It is, to a very real degree, a national slander that's deeply at odds with Trump's purported nationalism. This, coupled with his explicit rejection of American exceptionalism, is also deeply at odds with presidential traditions, at least in the country.This also serves as an amazing reminder about the irony of recent history. Around eight years ago at this time, President Obama spoke to several international audiences, helping restore America's standing and credibility, and he acknowledged missteps in U.S. foreign policy, most notably with the war in Iraq. Soon after, the right was apoplectic: Obama, they said, had launched an "apology tour" abroad.The argument never really made sense, but eight years later, the tables have clearly turned. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg noted during the campaign that President Obama "has never spoken as negatively about America as Donald Trump has," and what was true before Election Day, evidently, remains true now.Postscript: The most alarming possible interpretation of Trump's stated "respect" for the Russian president is that Trump is comfortable with Putin's use of violence -- even against domestic rivals -- as a legitimate governing tool. It'd be helpful for the White House to bring clarity to this question, though given Trump World's recent track record, no one could be sure which parts of their claims were true.