It’s almost as though the people who follow behind Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, picking up after his various comments, have forgotten that this is 2016 and every cable news hit, radio interview and social media post will be around to haunt them long after Trump has left the political scene, whether he wins the presidency or not.
The two days following Trump’s appearance on a “commander-in-chief” forum” hosted by NBC News on Wednesday night have provided a raft of examples as Trump surrogates and supporters have taken to the airwaves to defend Trump’s repeated praise of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and his assertion that the man who has invaded and terrorized his neighbors, presided over the cratering of his country’s economy, and used widespread oppression as a political tool is “far more of a leader” than President Obama.
The idea that Trump would suggest that Putin -- whose government appears to be actively working to undermine the credibility of the upcoming U.S. presidential elections -- is a leader preferable to the United States’ elected president was a bit much. But Trump has been so outrageous for so long that anybody who claims to have been shocked is either being disingenuous or hasn’t been paying attention.
What truly was shocking, though, was Trump supporters’ collective rush to the amen corner.
“I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” said Trump’s vice presidential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in an interview with CNN on Thursday. “And that’s going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president.”
“Vladimir Putin has had a stronger influence on his country than Barack Obama has had here,” said former Trump campaign manager and CNN contributor Corey Lewandowski on the Network’s New Day program Friday.
Lewandowski allowed that Putin may have done some “terrible things,” but said what was more important is that he is against the terror group ISIS. “That’s the number one priority.”
Trump-supporting conservative radio host and MSNBC commentator Hugh Hewitt was left to fall back on the treacherous “Putin may be evil, but …” argument:
Putin's an evil man. POTUS a good but incompetent man. Putin has served his country's national interest better. https://t.co/6R2N0dajHM— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) September 9, 2016
This is really a pretty breathtaking stance for Hewitt -- a supposed foreign policy expert -- to adopt.
Putin has, arguably, increased Russia’s role on the international stage, but in the same way that a man who stands on his front lawn indiscriminately firing a shotgun into the street raises the family’s profile in the neighborhood.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his backing of armed rebellion in Donbas, his support of Bashar al-Assad, his continued intimidation of his neighbors, have all raised Russia’s international profile. But saying they have served his country’s interest is bizarre, given that the sanctions resulting from his aggression have contributed to putting the Russian economy into a tailspin.
(And this doesn’t even touch Putin’s brutal suppression of a free press, of open society movements, and of homosexuals, or his abject failure over more than 17 years in power, to move the Russian economy beyond its utter dependence on the fluctuations of the oil and gas industry.)
At least some in the GOP were willing to take exception to Trump’s praise for Putin. Although he expressed anger at being forced to address yet another Trump comment, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “Vladimir Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests. Vladimir Putin is violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. It's certainly appears he is conducting in-state sponsored attacks on what appears to be our political system. That is not acting in our interests and that is an adversarial stance and he is acting like an adversary."
In an appearance Friday morning, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tried to moderate her client’s position, claiming that Ryan and others has misunderstood his comments.
“He is not praising him so much as saying that we will work with people, anybody who wants to help stop the advance of ISIS will be welcomed in a Trump/Pence administration to do so.”
Conway said, “What he said was he's seen as a stronger in his country and he also said, if you'd pull the whole quote, he said he doesn't agree with that form of government but in that country, Vladimir Putin is strong.”
Conway also had to explain why Trump did an interview on Thursday that aired on RT America, the Kremlin-backed Russian “news” network that regularly airs stories flattering to Moscow. The interview was with former CNN host Larry King, whose show is licensed to RT. Ironically, Trump used the interview to slam the “dishonest” U.S. media.
It’s a matter of opinion which would be more embarrassing for a campaign: not realizing that the show you are appearing on is regularly rebroadcasted by a Kremlin propaganda outlet, or not caring. Conway opted for the ignorance defense.
“He actually did an interview with Larry, a friend of his, a friend I'm sure of everyone around the table. And he said he was doing it for his podcast, didn't know it would be on Russian TV,” Conway said.