Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson gave Putin exactly what he wants

It is no coincidence that Trump made his biggest threat against NATO right after Tucker Carlson sat with Putin

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 12, 2024 9:17AM (EST)

President Donald Trump attends a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump attends a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

As we all know, the biggest story in the world is the breaking news that President Joe Biden is old. Sure 9/11 was something of a big deal and the war in Iraq and the global pandemic required all of our attention for a time, but this is the most important news of our lifetime, maybe anyone's lifetime and there's no telling when, or if, the nation will ever recover. Still, it's probably important to at least pay a tiny bit of attention to other things happening in the world just in case they might also be affected by Biden's age in some way.

In fact, we probably should be just a little bit curious about what former Fox News celebrity Tucker Carlson was doing in Moscow last week interviewing Russian president Vladimir Putin. Carlson has demonstrated his affinity for Putin for years now and is commonly extolled on the Russian state television channels as a model American with all the right ideas. Back in March of 2022, Mother Jones obtained a copy of a Kremlin memo with talking points for the media:

“It is essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who sharply criticizes the actions of the United States [and] NATO, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine, [and] the defiantly provocative behavior from the leadership of the Western countries and NATO towards the Russian Federation and towards President Putin, personally,” advises the 12-page document written in Russian. It sums up Carlson’s position: “Russia is only protecting its interests and security.” The memo includes a quote from Carlson: “And how would the US behave if such a situation developed in neighboring Mexico or Canada?”

(People like Carlson used to be called "useful idiots.") Russian state media has followed those instructions and for the past two years has featured Carlson's commentary regularly. It's therefore not all that surprising that he would be granted the coveted interview with Putin.

As it turns out the interview ended up mostly being a twisted history lesson from Putin with Carlson sitting there like a potted plant with a feigned fascinated expression on his face. The point of Putin's tutorial was to explain why Russia has every right to invade Ukraine and anywhere else he might fancy. Putin went to great pains to explain why it was the victims of WWII who made Hitler do what he did, specifically the people of Poland, whom Putin blamed for balking at Hitler's invasion of its country. The entire thrust of the conversation was a very thinly veiled threat to invade Poland. The Polish government certainly heard it that way. The foreign minister posted this on Friday:

He's right. It isn't the first time. Putin been saying it for years now and it's one reason why the NATO alliance has not only been more unified than ever, but they've also welcomed Finland — another country that shares a border with Russia and is definitely on Putin's wish list. Sweden has also applied for membership but is still being held up by Russia-friendly Hungary under the leadership of authoritarian dreamboat, Viktor Orban. (There is some hope that this last impediment will be lifted in the near future.) These are countries that had long resisted joining the alliance but moved quickly to do it when Putin expanded his invasion of Ukraine in 2022. They see the writing on the wall.

There's been a ton written about the right's attraction to Putin for reasons that range from affinity with his macho whiteness and adherence to "traditional values" (homophobia and misogyny) to an appreciation of his willingness to crack down on dissent. He's their kind of guy. And we know that the man who leads their party, Donald Trump, admires him greatly because he says so all the time. When Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Trump was very impressed:

Here’s a guy who’s very savvy … I know him very well. Very, very well. By the way, this never would have happened with us. Had I been in office, not even thinkable. This would never have happened. But here’s a guy that says, you know, ‘I’m gonna declare a big portion of Ukraine independent’ – he used the word ‘independent’ – ‘and we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace.’ You gotta say that’s pretty savvy.”

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He pays lip service to the idea that Putin is so afraid of Trump that he would never make a move without his permission but the truth is that Trump not only doesn't care that Putin invaded a sovereign country, he is actively hostile to Ukraine, which he has been persuaded to hate for a variety of reasons many of which were likely put in his head by Putin himself.  And he's been opposed to the NATO alliance for years, mainly because he never understood what it does and why the U.S. should be a part of it. He even admitted it on the trail once back in 2016, saying "I said here’s the problem with NATO: it’s obsolete. Big statement to make when you don’t know that much about it, but I learn quickly.”

As it turns out the interview ended up mostly being a twisted history lesson from Putin with Carlson sitting there like a potted plant with a feigned fascinated expression on his face.

Whatever Trump may have learned came up against his unwillingness to ever admit he was wrong so he transformed his critique to the only thing he understands: money. He has repeatedly threatened to pull out of NATO because the other countries aren't "making their payments" as if they're members of Trump's Mar-a-Lago beach club in arrears on their membership dues rather than a mutual defense alliance in which each country has agreed to spend a certain amount on its national defense.

Over the weekend he went further, however, and said something truly dangerous and unhinged:

This kind of loose talk is dangerous and stupid coming from a man who was once president of the United States and is running again. People believe him when he says something like that, not because they can't take a joke or don't know that he's full of hot air, but because it's entirely believable that he would do exactly that. Everyone knows he doesn't care about America's allies and he has made it clear over and over again that he sees no real benefit to them beyond a possible payout. He posted this on Sunday:

That's a meaningless demand indicating that even after four years as president, Trump is still as shallow and vacuous as he was the day he was inaugurated. It's no doubt a coincidence that he made these comments within days of the Carlson interview with Putin. I find it hard to believe that Trump slogged through that tedious conversation or understood what Putin was talking about. But you can bet that Putin heard Trump and rubbed his hands together with glee. If only the American people heard him just as clearly.

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 Nato Poland Putin Russia Trump Tucker Carlson