What Trump sees in Putin

What Trump sees in Putin
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Donald Trump is not backing down from his praise of Vladimir Putin – even if his embrace of the Russian president is sparking media criticism and causing his GOP colleagues obvious unease.

Trump told NBC’s Matt Lauer that Putin “has very strong control over a country,” during a forum on national security and foreign affairs on Wednesday evening. He also praised Putin for having an “82 percent approval rating” among his own people. 

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During another interview this week with Larry King, the GOP nominee insisted that the idea of Russian interference in the U.S. election was “pretty unlikely.” The interview stirred more controversy because it was rebroadcast on RT, a Kremlin-backed TV network.

The collective furor was enough to spur senior Republicans into distancing themselves yet again from Trump. 

Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP Senate candidates trade barbs in brutal Indiana primary Students gather outside White House after walkout to protest gun violence Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes MORE told The Guardian that he believed Trump’s “views will probably change once he understands better who Vladimir Putin truly is.” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanLieu rips Ryan after Waffle House shooting: ‘When will you stop silencing us?’ To succeed in Syria, Democrats should not resist Trump policy House Republicans prepare to battle for leadership slots MORE (R-Wis.) noted that the Russian president is “an aggressor that does not share our interests.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton takes swipe at 'false equivalency' in media coverage of 2016 election Former presidents, first ladies come together to honor Barbara Bush Romney: Parts of Comey book read 'too much like a novel’ MORE told reporters on Thursday that Trump’s apparent fondness for Putin was so pronounced that it was “scary” and that “it suggests he will let Putin do whatever Putin wants to do and then make excuses for him.”

For better or worse, it is not at all clear that Trump approves of specific policies that Putin has adopted. Rather, his admiration seems to be rooted in a sense that the Russian president’s style and temperament provide a template for how a President TrumpDonald John TrumpClinton takes swipe at 'false equivalency' in media coverage of 2016 election Trump asked Netanyahu if he actually cares about peace: report Official: Trump to urge North Korea to dismantle nuclear program in return for sanctions relief MORE might behave.

The one theme that has run through Trump’s candidacy is that he will bring “strength” to the presidency and that his various opponents, rivals and critics are “weak.” It is this identification of Putin with strength that seems to be provide the bedrock for Trump’s positive view of the Russian.

In his conversation with Lauer, one of Trump’s most contentious assertions was that the Russian president has been “a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”

But that was immediately preceded by the acknowledgment that, in Russia, “it’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system.”

The GOP nominee has deployed versions of this argument with other authoritarian figures as well — with predictably contentious results.

In July, he said of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, “He was a bad guy, really bad guy, but you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good.”

Trump’s words during a Republican debate earlier this year about the Chinese government’s behavior in repressing protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were, if anything, even more controversial.

“I was not endorsing it. I said that is a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength,” he said. “And then they kept down the riot. It was a horrible thing. It doesn’t mean at all I was endorsing it.”

Those are the kind of statements that cause Trump’s many detractors to fear for basic democratic principles if he were elected. He is, they contend, an authoritarian-in-waiting, ready to trample on established norms to safeguard his power.

The critics also argue that Trump’s affinity with Putin goes beyond mere matters of demeanor. 

Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, served as a consultant for a pro-Kremlin president of Ukraine. Trump aides reportedly worked in advance of the Republican National Convention to keep out of the party platform a pledge that the U.S. would provide arms to Ukraine. 

Trump also suggested during a New York Times interview in July that, if he were president, the United States might not defend NATO allies if those nations were “not making payments” to the long-standing alliance.

To Trump himself, the important thing seems to be his sense of Putin as a leader who gets things done and who has improved his nation’s standing. 

The factual basis of that analysis is highly disputed, with critics arguing that Russia has in fact become increasingly isolated during Putin’s years in power.

As is always the case with Trump, however, the lines between the personal and the political are blurry.

Late last year, Putin called Trump “talented” and “the absolute leader” in the race for the GOP nomination.

“When people call you ‘brilliant,’ it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia,” Trump said during one appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”