President Donald Trump apparently knows which way the winds of public opinion are blowing on Vladimir Putin.
Trump was taken completely by surprise when Russia invaded Ukraine, he said in an interview Tuesday. The former president also said Putin, whose decision Trump had initially praised as “genius,” had “changed” since he left office.
“I’m surprised… I thought he was negotiating when he sent his troops to the border,” Trump told the conservative Washington Examiner Tuesday. “I thought it was a tough way to negotiate but a smart way to negotiate.”
“I figured he was going to make a good deal like everybody else does with the United States and the other people they tend to deal with,” Trump told the Examiner. “And then he went in… I think he’s changed. It’s a very sad thing for the world. He’s very much changed.”
Trump’s presidency was inextricably linked to Putin and to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the former due to Russian interference to aid his campaign—although the Mueller investigation found no evidence the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. And the first vote to impeach Trump came about after Trump pushed Zelenskyy to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine—after Trump had ordered a halt on military aid to Ukraine.
In the interview Tuesday, Trump bragged that he “did the biggest sanctions anyone’s ever done on Russia” and said he was “tough on Putin,” though he “got along with him very well.”
Though Trump himself is still very much a polarizing force in U.S. politics, Americans have overwhelmingly sided with Ukraine and Zelenskyy since the invasion. A YouGov poll released earlier this month found that 44% of Americans had a favorable view of Zelenskyy compared with 16% unfavorable, while 79% of Americans viewed Putin unfavorably.
The same poll found that two-thirds of U.S. voters thought it was “inappropriate” for U.S. leaders to praise Putin, including nearly 60% of respondents who voted for Trump in 2020.
And over the past few weeks, Trump has markedly changed his tune on Putin. Last month, he called the Russian leader’s decision to invade “genius” during an interview with conservative talk radio hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton, and said his immediate reaction to the invasion was: “‘How smart is that?’ He’s going to go in and be a peacekeeper.’”
He also referred to Putin as “pretty smart” during a Florida fundraiser days after the start of the war, comparing the Russian invasion of Ukraine to a real estate deal. And during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 26, Trump said he would have threatened to “blow [Russia] to pieces,” said the invasion was “a travesty and assault on humanity,” and claimed it “would have been so easy for me to stop this travesty from happening.”
During the same speech, he referred to Zelenskyy as a “brave man” whom he “likes” because Zelenskyy said, during a joint press conference with Trump in September 2019, that “nobody pushed me” to investigate the Bidens in Ukraine. But he also said that Putin was smarter than the leaders of NATO.
“The problem is not that Putin is smart, which of course he’s smart,” Trump said during CPAC. “The real problem is that our leaders are dumb. Dumb. So dumb.”
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