Four years ago Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, stood before the American public and definitively stated that Russia was America’s biggest “geopolitical foe.”
This week, the far-and-away Republican poll leader Donald Trump gave Vladimir Putin a big, wet kiss, calling him “a strong leader” and saying it was a “great honor” to have Putin compliment him.
Trump’s warm embrace of the Russian president has shocked and alarmed the Republican establishment. There’s no secret about why Trump has psychologically tethered himself to Putin, whose bombast rivals that of the U.S. billionaire businessman and whose own strongman reputation reinforces Trump’s. But as the United States and its allies try to beat back Russia’s intrusions into Ukraine and Syria, Trump has ruffled countless feathers by cozying up to the Russian leader.
Romney’s former aides embody the GOP backlash, and on Friday morning, as Trump offered his latest flattery for Putin, they seethed.
“Donald Trump is like that stray dog anybody can pet and it will follow you home,” former top Romney adviser Stuart Stevens told POLITICO. “Putin praises him so he loves Putin. It’s embarrassing and sad. He’s a seriously damaged individual who is deeply insecure and needs attention and praise and the source doesn’t matter.”
Another former Romney adviser, who did not want to be named, said emails were flying around Friday morning among ex-staffers and friends after Trump on MSNBC heaped praise on Putin and hesitated to condemn the Russian leader for allegations the Kremlin has killed high-profile journalists critical of Putin, saying “our country does plenty of killing also.”
That adviser said it was “shocking, appalling and disgusting” for him to equate Russia’s killing of journalists with anything that America does. “What he said about America killing people,” this person said, “that crosses the line.”
Trump has repeatedly fawned over Putin, especially after the two appeared in separate interviews on “60 Minutes” in September, when Putin was in Russia. “I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates,” he said during a November GOP debate, appearing to create the image of a joint interview. “We did well that night.”
The lovefest escalated this week when Putin, talking just after his end-of-year press conference, called Trump “a very bright and talented man,” as well as an “absolute leader” in the race for the presidency. Trump, appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday, returned the warm embrace, saying it’s nice “when people call you brilliant, it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.”
And when pressed by co-host Joe Scarborough about the number of high-profile murders of journalists who have been critical of Putin, Trump was reluctant to offer any harsh words. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know unlike what we have in this country,” Trump responded.
After further questioning, Trump responded, “Well I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” he said. “So, you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on, a lot of stupidity.”
Asked then, whether he would condemn Putin’s hostility toward journalists, Trump said, “Oh sure, absolutely.”
Romney himself couldn’t help jumping into the fray, quickly taking to Twitter to correct Trump and slyly criticize the candidate for his lack of knowledge about Russia.
“Important distinction: thug Putin kills journalists and opponents; our presidents kill terrorists and enemy combatants,” Romney tweeted.
When asked by POLITICO if the former presidential candidate wanted to say more about his views on Putin and Trump, a Romney spokeswoman wrote: “We are going to leave it at the tweet but I’m grateful to you for thinking of us.”
Romney has been enjoying an “I told you so” moment for the past couple years, after being smacked down by President Barack Obama for labeling Russia the United States’ biggest enemy during the 2012 campaign. In short order, Putin has annexed Crimea, escalated the conflict in the Ukraine and continued to successfully prop up the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. In March of last year, Romney wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Putin’s maneuvering in Crimea and Syria, and that President Obama and his team had tried and failed, “to reset relations and to build friendships across the globe…Part of their failure, I submit, is due to their failure to act when action was possible, and needed.”
Stevens, in his email to POLITICO, said this “latest Trump embarrassment” showed how his party’s leading candidate wasn’t capable of bringing an orderly “political approach or philosophy” to the campaign trail.
Another former Romney aide who is now helping out a rival 2016 candidate at first thought Trump’s comments about the killing of journalists was a joke ripped straight from The Onion. Again, it demonstrated Trump’s dramatic lack of understanding about the geo-politics of the world today, the aide said.
“You just sort of shake your head. At some point the voters are going to recognize that this isn’t a serious campaign,” said this former aide. “We hope that recognition will come sooner rather than later.”
One foreign policy adviser to a rival GOP campaign, however, pointed out that a contingent of Republican Putin-admirers do exist.
“There is a circle within the Republican Party—people like Pat Buchanan and others—who think that Putin is the best thing since sliced bread,” said an advisor to one of the Republican candidates who is also a Russia scholar. “And I don’t know if Trump would want to be associated with Buchanan or not, but his comments put him in that category.”
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