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Trump not quite done talking about how ‘smart’ Putin is

Even after Donald Trump faced pushback from his own allies over his praise for Vladimir Putin, the former president still can’t help himself.


At a rally in Georgia over the weekend, Donald Trump spent some time pushing a familiar line: The Republican praised authoritarian leaders abroad.

Referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Republican told his supportive crowd, “He runs 1.5 billion people with an iron fist. Yeah, I think he’s smart.” As part of the same riff, Trump went on to call North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “smart.”

Reflecting on authoritarian models, the former American president added, “The smartest one gets to the top.”

But as is often the case, Trump also singled out Russia’s Vladimir Putin for praise.

“They ask me if Putin is smart. Yes, Putin was smart. And I actually thought he was going to be negotiating. And I said, ‘That’s a hell of a way to negotiate, put 200,000 soldiers on the border.’ It shouldn’t have happened.... He made a big mistake. I think he made a big mistake.... But it looked like a great negotiation that didn’t work out too well for him.”

The war in Ukraine has shattered the myth of Putin as some kind of brilliant tactician and strategic mastermind. To the extent that the Russian leader was perceived as a competent strategist, the world now knows better.

But it’s against this backdrop that Trump was eager to reassure the public that Putin really is “smart” and his tactics toward Ukraine at one point “looked like a great negotiation.”

The rhetoric came about a month after the former president Trump praised Putin’s efforts in Ukraine as “genius” and “very savvy.”

Two weeks ago, when Fox News’ Sean Hannity repeatedly invited the Republican to criticize Putin and other authoritarian leaders, Trump just wouldn’t bite.

A couple of weeks before Election Day 2020, the then-U.S. president thought it’d be a good idea to boast about how much more authoritarians prefer him to his rival. “The only thing I can tell you for sure President Xi from China, President Putin from Russia, Kim Jong-un [from] North Korea, and I could name 40 others — they’re sharp as a tack, they don’t want to deal with Sleepy Joe,” Trump said at the time.

Jon Chait explained soon after, “Here is a case where Trump has forgotten the difference between the way he thinks about various dictators and the way his audience does. Trump regards Xi, Putin, and Kim with admiration. He envies their dictatorial powers, and glories in the flattery they lavish on him.”

A year and a half later, the Republican’s thinking doesn’t appear to have changed. Even after Trump faced pushback from his own allies over his Putin praise, the former president still can’t help himself.