Marco Rubio attacked Donald Trump at Thursday’s debate for expressing admiration for Vladimir Putin. “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” Trump said, before explaining that it had been the other way around.
“Putin said about me—I didn’t say about Putin—Putin said very nice things about me. And I say, very nicely, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if actually we could get along with Russia?’ ”
There are a few things wrong with this account.
First of all, Trump has most certainly spoken glowingly about Putin. In December 2015, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he said, “I’ve always felt fine about Putin. He’s a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader. … He’s actually got popularity within his country.”
Trump was impressed with Putin’s popularity: “I think he’s up in the 80s. You see where Obama’s in the 30s and low 40s and [Putin’s] up in the 80s.”
Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough brought up the fact that Putin has been accused of ordering the killing of journalists and political rivals. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump replied.
Why was Trump talking about Putin on Morning Joe anyway? Because Putin had indeed discussed him at his year-end press conferences the day before, when a reporter asked him his opinion of the Republican candidate. Putin’s response immediately made news in the United States, with media outlets reporting that the Russian president had praised Trump effusively and planted the seeds for some kind of transatlantic authoritarian “bromance.”
But what Putin actually said about Trump is not so self-evident. True, he did unequivocally call him “talented,” and noted that he was the “leader” in the presidential race. But as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum pointed out at the time, different media outlets translated the rest of Putin’s comments in different ways. The New York Times said Putin had called Trump “very bright.” Interfax: “really brilliant.” The BBC, and Slate, said “very outstanding.”
But in all likelihood, none of those quite nailed what Putin was actually saying. The problem is that the word Putin said—yarkii—can have a number of different meanings. And while it’s easy to understand why that would have been widely translated as “bright” in the American press, contextually, the best translation would have probably been the one that was cited least frequently in subsequent days: “flamboyant.”
To its credit, that’s what Reuters went with. The Washington Post did well too, with “very lively.” The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik gave the most nuanced explanation:
In my dictionary, yarkii can be ‘clear, bright, dazzling.’ You sometimes hear Russians using the term to denote the bright sky of a bracing, clear morning. I’d go with something like vivid. The word also could mean garish, but I think Putin was trying to be complimentary, and garish would be criticism.
Was it such a compliment, for Donald Trump to have been described as flamboyant, lively, or vivid? Trump certainly took it that way. “When people call you ‘brilliant’ it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia,” Trump said during that Morning Joe interview. In a statement later he said, “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”