Trump admits he was wrong about Putin — but just can't quit him

His allegiance to Putin puts Trump in a bind on the issue of Ukraine, which Republican voters strongly support

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 16, 2022 9:59AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (Getty Images/Salon)

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin slapped back at the United States' sanctions on Russia and various Russian oligarchs by putting what he called a "stop list" on 13 Americans. The list includes President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and White House press secretary Jen Psaki among other members of the Biden administration. Putin also put former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the list as well as Biden's son Hunter, neither of whom are in the current government or hold any official job. Curiously, Putin failed to name even one Republican. How odd?

Responding to a question about this during the daily press briefing, Psaki said, "it won't surprise any of you that none of us are planning tourist trips to Russia, none of us have bank accounts that we won't be able to access, so we will forge ahead." Unsurprisingly, Republicans had little to say about it. Well, except for one. Former President Donald Trump was jubilant:

"Breaking News: Russia just sanctioned Joe Biden. While that is a terrible thing, in so many ways, perhaps it will now be explained why the Biden family received 3.5 million dollars from the very wealthy former Mayor of Moscow's wife. During out Presidential Debate, "moderator" Chris Wallace, then of Fox, would not let me ask that question. He said it was inappropriate. Perhaps that's why Biden has been so "slow on the draw" with Russia. This is a really bad conflict of interest that will, perhaps now, be fully and finally revealed!

I don't think I have to point out the monumental level of chutzpah in that statement coming from the man who had a Trump Tower Moscow in the works as he was running for president and spent his entire term running his business out of the oval office. When it comes to conflicts of interest, the Trump family wrote the book.

As for the ridiculous accusation, that comes from a sloppy partisan investigation conducted by Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa which mistakenly identified Hunter Biden as a founder of a firm that was paid $3.5 million in 2014 by the wife of the late mayor of Moscow. But even that pathetic investigation didn't produce any evidence that the payment to that firm was corrupt in any case. Bringing this up now is a classic, puerile Trumpian "I'm rubber, you're glue, whatever you say bounce off me and sticks to you" taunt. That he deployed this petty, smear job in the context of the bloody carnage in Ukraine is just one more example of Trump's unfitness for high office.

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What is more interesting than that comment, to my mind, is Trump's swipe at Joe Biden for being "slow on the draw" with Russia.

Let us not forget, after all, that Trump's first public comments were abhorrent compliments to Putin for his very "savvy" "genius" in invading Ukraine and taking all that valuable land for his own. And he's been all over the place since then. On Tuesday, he gave an interview to the Washington Examiner in which he revealed that he's as clueless as ever, telling them:

"I'm surprised — I'm surprised. I thought he was negotiating when he sent his troops to the border. I thought he was negotiating. I thought it was a tough way to negotiate but a smart way to negotiate. I figured he was going to make a good deal like everybody else does with the United States and the other people they tend to deal with — you know, like every trade deal. We've never made a good trade deal until I came along. And then he went in — and I think he's changed. I think he's changed. It's a very sad thing for the world. He's very much changed."

Right. He's changed. Or maybe he played Trump for a fool when he was in office, as any sentient being could see?

Trump went on to tell the Examiner what he's been saying to anyone who'll listen ever since he realized that he'd made a very big mistake. He said he was actually tough on Putin by getting NATO to "pay their dues," sanctioning Russia and "stopping" the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, between Germany and Russia, all of which is untrue.

NATO countries don't pay dues they agree to pay a certain percentage of their GNP toward their own national defense. Some did raise their defense spending during Trump's term but at least some of their rationale was based upon Trump's bizarre affinity for Putin and his constant threats to withdraw from NATO. Trump did continue some sanctions against Russia that had been put in place under the previous administrations and added a few more. But he never mentions that it was Congress that passed the major sanctions bill targeting Russia's energy and defense sectors on a bipartisan basis because they, too, were concerned about Trump's coziness with Putin. He signed the sanctions bill reluctantly, calling it "seriously flawed." As for the pipeline, his "stopping" it is wildly overstated. The U.S. and others were concerned about that pipeline long before Trump had ever heard of it. Trump did issue sanctions against the builders of the pipeline toward the end of his term, compelling one company to withdraw, but the job was finished by a Russian company. The vast majority of the pipeline was built during the Trump administration. When Biden came in they tried a different tack and waived some sanctions while adding on some others in the hopes of getting a diplomatic breakthrough with Germany on the issue. The invasion of Ukraine finally did the job and now the pipeline is kaput.

So, in other words, Trump is full of it as usual.

Still, he is in a bind on this issue. Regardless of his protestations to the contrary, everyone knows Trump is soft on Russia. As we look at the horrors on our TV screens and see the massive migration of millions of refugees, he is exposed. And his party is starting to notice.

RELATED: GOP voters finally buck Trump: Republicans unwilling to be Putin's puppets — for now

Although he didn't mention the Dear Leader by name, former vice president Mike Pence recently declared that there is no room for "Putin apologists" in the Republican Party at a big meeting of GOP donors, and then took a trip to the Polish-Ukraine border to look all tough and Commander-in-Chief-like. Trump appeared before those same donors and said "someone called me a Putin apologist," confirming that he's who Pence was talking about. He then declared that nobody has been tougher than he was before running through his greatest hits and blathering on about the 2020 election.

I don't know if this war in Ukraine will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. That poor camel has been laden with so many straws since Trump came on the scene that you have to wonder if its back is made of steel. Admitting that he misread the situation and thought Putin was "negotiating" is one of the only times I've ever seen Trump admit that he was wrong and I'm not even sure he knows that's what he did. Polling shows there is strong bipartisan support for Ukraine and a deep hostility toward Putin for what he's done. Yet Trump just can't seem to quit him. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Gop Civil War Nato Polling Putin Republican Voters Republicans Sanctions Trump Ukraine War