It was jarring to see his acceptance of Putin’s worldview, assertions, and denial –especially after his combative meeting with NATO leaders, where Trump questioned things like the British approach to Brexit and German energy policy.
Human Rights Watch Director Phillip Roth said Trump “has this insatiable admiration for strongmen.” The group released a report in January detailing how Trump’s intolerant rhetoric actually encouraged oppressive regimes around the world.
While the question of whether Trump’s affinity for Putin stems from “kompromat” or not, it’s clear he finds it difficult to be skeptical around strongman foreign leaders, and often takes what they say at face value. Putin is the most recent example.
“My people came to me, Dan Coates, came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said at the Helsinki press conference. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” (Trump’s follow-up corrections were difficult to believe.)
Trump touted Putin’s denial as “extremely strong and powerful.” He also said he holds “both countries responsible” when asked if he held Russia responsible for anything. “I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish,” he continued. “And I think we’re all to blame.”
This is not the first time Trump has credulously believed Putin. “He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times” Trump said in November 2017. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it. I think he is very insulted by it.”
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election to help Trump and damage Hillary Clinton.
Trump also recently called for Russia to rejoin the G-7, belittling Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea with the description: “something happened a while ago where Russia is no longer in.” When Trump was asked at the G-7 summit if Crimea should be considered Russian territory, Trump said that Russia had spent a “lot of money on rebuilding it,” in between multiple assertions that people should ask Barack Obama that question. Trump has taken a skeptical view of the sanctions and expulsions that the Obama administration put in place as consequences for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and attacks on the rest of Ukraine.
This is not the only strongman leader with autocratic or dictatorial tendencies Trump has naively admired, credulously believed, or prioritized over traditional democratically-elected allies:
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un
Last month in Singapore, President Trump sat down with Kim Jong Un, the brutal dictator of North Korea. Trump walked out with a vague agreement, similar to the one South Korea and North Korea signed earlier this year.
“Yeah, he’s de-nuking, I mean he’s de-nuking the whole place,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview following the summit. “It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now. They’ll be announcing things over the next few days.”
He didn’t get it in writing — the agreement that Trump and Kim signed mentioned very little of substance. Trump professed that he trusts the dictator:
I do trust him, yeah. Now, will I come back to you in a year and you’ll be interviewing and I’ll say, ‘gee, I made a mistake?’ That’s always possible. You know, we’re dealing at a very high level, a lot of things can change, a lot of things are possible. He trusts me, I believe, I really do. I mean, he said openly, and he said it to a couple of reporters that were with him that he knows that no other president ever could have done this, I mean no other pre– he knows the presidents, he knows who we had in front of me. He said no other president could have done this. I think he trusts me, and I trust him.
The evidence thus far suggests that Trump’s trust is placed in vain, with reports of North Koreans upgrading infrastructure at nuclear facilities, increasing fuel production, and expanding missile plants since the summit.
Trump praised North Korea’s beaches and touted them as a possible real estate venture. “As an example, they have great beaches,” he said in the Singapore news conference. “You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean. I said, ‘Boy look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo?'”
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte
Rodrigo Duterte wants to handle drug addicts in the Philippines in the same way Hitler handled Jews: “Hitler massacred three million Jews. [Ed. note: it was actually 6 million] Now, there is three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He boasted of personally murdering three suspected criminals. His ineffective efforts have manifested more as a war on the poorer sections of his country and has claimed over 12,000 lives.
Trump thinks Duterte has the right approach, and does not appear to have questioned him at all. In a private phone call in April of last year, Trump lauded the “unbelievable job” Duterte was doing in fighting the illegal drug trade.
When asked about human rights at a joint public appearance Duterte called reporters “spies” which caused Trump to laugh, and Duterte repeated his accusation to the media, “You are.” Since the 1980s, more than 170 journalists have been targeted and killed in the Philippines, and when asked about this in 2016, Duterte said, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
Trump also has a licensed property in the Philippines.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Trump said last September that President Erdogan was getting “very high marks” running a country that has brutally cracked down on media brave enough to criticize the government. After Erdogan began to expand his executive powers following a referendum in 2017, Trump called to congratulate him.
“It’s a great honor and privilege — because he’s become a friend of mine — to introduce President Erdogan of Turkey,” Trump said during a brief media appearance during the UN General Assembly. “He’s running a very difficult part of the world. He’s involved very, very strongly and, frankly, he’s getting very high marks.”
Trump was eerily quiet after Turkish security staff brutally beat protesters outside the Turkish embassy in downtown Washington, D.C. in 2017, the day that Trump welcomed Erdogan to the Oval Office. As the State Department, Republicans, and groups around the world condemned the violence, the White House issued no statements and refused to comment even days later.
Trump also has a licensed property in Turkey.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi
Trump praised el-Sisi in their May 2017 meeting in Saudi Arabia, arguing that under the authoritarian leader, “safety seems to be very strong,” and that el-Sisi has “done a tremendous job under trying circumstance.” He said he was “very much behind” the dictator, whose regime has enforced an “assembly line” of torture according to Human Rights Watch. Trump also complimented el Sisi’s shoes.
After el-Sisi came to power in 2013 in a coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, President Obama declined to invite him to the White House, while Trump had no qualms about inviting him in his first year in office.
“We agree on so many things,” Trump said. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt, and the United States has, believe me, backing and we have strong backing.”
In an August 2016 campaign speech, Trump attacked President Obama’s “naïve” words and actions and his lack of “moral courage”:
Yet, when President Obama delivered his address in Cairo, no such moral courage could be found. Instead of condemning the oppression of women and gays in many Muslim nations, and the systematic violations of human rights, or the financing of global terrorism, President Obama tried to draw an equivalency between our human rights record and theirs. His naïve words were followed by even more naïve actions.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Trump has had a very friendly relationship with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, taking the country’s side on several high-profile issues.
Before describing relations with Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration, Trump said during a White House meeting with MBS, “The relationship is probably the strongest it’s ever been,” Trump told reporters. “We understand each other.”
“We really have a great friendship, a great relationship,” he said.
Trump has accepted this relationship while ignoring his controversial purge of the Saudi establishment that has resulted in mass arrests, “selective justice,” and a consolidation of power for the crown prince. The U.S. president also sided with Saudi Arabia over its dispute with Qatar. Earlier this year, Trump attempted (unsuccessfully) to send a U.S. citizen to Saudi Arabia without a trial.
There could be two reasons for this, beyond MBS’s autocratic behavior: billions of dollars in defense industry contracts that Trump highlights during their joint meetings, and a quiet influence campaign that pushed for the removal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had taken a tougher line against Saudi Arabia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping
After hosting the Chinese president, who recently changed the rules that bar him from ruling the country for the rest of his life, at Mar-a-Lago last year, Trump was supremely optimistic.
“The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding,” he said. “We look forward to being together many times in the future. And I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.”
Trump talked about the “most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen” he and Xi Jinping had at a dinner at the visit, while lauding their “great chemistry.” Shortly after, he recanted on his constant campaign accusations that China acted to manipulate its currency.
China’s human rights record has been a decades-long point of contention between the American president and the Chinese leader. Trump has been quiet.
After China ended presidential term limits, Trump said, “He’s now president for life … Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day.”
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha
Trump hosted Thailand’s prime minister and junta chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, at the White House last October, days after a Thai court sentenced the previous prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to five years in prison. Trump called the visit “a great honor.”
“So we have a very strong relationship right now, as of this moment, and it’s getting stronger in the last nine months,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things together, and it is a tremendous — it’s really very good to have you with us.”
The new Thai government has attempted to require media outlets be licensed by the government and rewrite the constitution to ensure further military rule. The Trump administration has actually tried to do something similar.