Russian President Vladimir Putin has a long record of invading countries, funding proxy wars, crushing dissent, and violating human rights. When the United States denounces these crimes, Putin, like his Soviet predecessors, accuses us of hypocrisy. But in this propaganda war, Putin has an ally his forebears never enjoyed: the president of the United States. Donald Trump, elected in 2016 with Russia’s help, consistently defends Russia’s atrocities by arguing that we’re no better.
Trump has known for at least a month—and was briefed in writing long before then—about U.S. intelligence that Russia paid bounties to Afghan militants to kill our troops. But in an HBO interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, Trump admits that when he spoke to Putin last Thursday, he didn’t ask about the bounties. Trump says he didn’t bring them up because he didn’t believe the intelligence.
In the interview, Swan reminds Trump that his own former commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, confirmed that Russia was “supplying weapons to the Taliban.” Swan asks: “Isn’t that enough to challenge Putin over the killings of U.S. soldiers?” Trump, in response, shrugs that America is just as guilty. “Well, we supplied weapons when they [the Afghans] were fighting Russia, too,” he says. “We did that, too.”
That’s a flawed comparison. For one thing, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan more than 40 years ago, they were trying to install a communist government and expand the Soviet bloc. But Trump has been preaching moral equivalence between Russia and America for a long time. In December 2015, when Trump was running for president, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked him why he admired Putin, a leader who “kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries.” Trump replied that the U.S. was in no position to criticize Putin’s behavior, since “our country does plenty of killing also.”
Several months after that interview, Russia hacked Trump’s opponents to help Trump win the U.S. election. And Trump repaid the help. Two weeks into his presidency, he defended Putin in a Fox News interview. When the interviewer, Bill O’Reilly, noted that “Putin’s a killer,” Trump scoffed that the world was full of “a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent? You think our country’s so innocent? … Take a look at what we’ve done, too.”
In May 2017, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia during the election. The next day, Trump met behind closed doors with Russian officials and—according to three people who witnessed the conversation or saw notes from it—told the Russians that “he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because the United States did the same in other countries.” The Washington Post reported that one witness—speaking two years later, when this detail of the conversation was disclosed—“said Trump regularly defended Russia’s actions, even in private, saying no country is pure.”
In July 2018, the Department of Justice released a grand jury indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Trump’s opponents in the 2016 election. But three days later, at a summit in Helsinki, Trump refused to criticize Putin. A reporter asked Trump, “Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular?” Trump answered, “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. … I think we’re all to blame.”
Four months ago, in another Fox News interview, Brian Kilmeade asked Trump to address anti-American propaganda about the novel coronavirus. “According to the Washington Post,” said Kilmeade, “Russia, Iran, and China are going through a sophisticated disinformation campaign essentially blaming us” for “causing the virus, using the same principles they used to infiltrate our 2016 election.” Trump dismissed the report. “You don’t know what they’re doing,” he told Kilmeade, referring to the accused countries. “And when you read it in the Washington Post, you don’t believe it. I don’t.” The president said of disinformation: “They do it, and we do it, and we call them different things. … Hey, every country does it.”
Now Trump is peddling the same excuse for Russia’s proxy attacks on U.S. troops: Our hands are just as dirty, he says. In fact, he claims we’re worse than Russia. In a Newsmax interview on June 3, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer asked Trump which adversary was the most difficult to negotiate with. Trump replied:
People always ask, “Who’s the toughest? Is it Russia? Is it China? Could it be North Korea? Who’s the toughest, sir?” I say the toughest is the United States of America. Because we have people on the other side that are vicious. And they’re—I think they’re more vicious, in many respects, than any of the leaders I deal with. Look what they put us through: a phony Russian witch hunt, a phony impeachment …
It seemed impossible that the president of the United States would call leaders of his own country more vicious than foreign regimes responsible for genocide and other crimes against humanity. Trump couldn’t really mean that, could he? But three weeks later, he repeated it. On June 25, speaking at a military shipyard in Wisconsin, Trump said his domestic opponents were “far more unreasonable” than the leaders of Russia, China, or North Korea. Hours later, in an interview with Sean Hannity, he posed the same question—“Is it China? Is it Russia? Could it be North Korea?”—and gave the same answer: “No, it’s the United States of America. The toughest country to deal with. Because we have [Chuck] Schumer and [Nancy] Pelosi and people that are bad people.”
Trump is a traitor. Throughout his presidency, he has stood with hostile or authoritarian regimes—Russia, China, Turkey, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and others—against the United States. He has excused their assaults on our country and has dismissed U.S. intelligence that exposed their crimes. He has bashed America—“I don’t blame China. I blame our country”—and has called our adversaries “far more honorable” than his domestic opponents. Russia’s proxy war against our troops is just another enemy attack he’s willing to defend.
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