In the final days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Russian state media used footage of Donald Trump, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson to bolster Putin’s image.
A Grid review of a half-dozen Russian state media outlets found at least a dozen examples of government channels resharing complimentary remarks by the three men. None responded to Grid’s requests for comment.
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius,’” Trump told an American radio program on Tuesday. “‘Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent.’ Oh, that’s wonderful.” Noting there were “more army tanks than I’ve ever seen,” Trump said, “they’re gonna keep peace all right.”
A Russian-language summary of Trump’s comments by Russia Today told viewers, “Trump is confident that Russian troops will keep the peace in Donbas.” Donbas is the region within Ukraine’s territorial boundaries that contains Luhansk and Donetsk. On Wednesday, hours before Russia’s invasion, state-controlled outlets replayed and discussed the American former president’s comments for Russian viewers.
InoSMI, a branch of state media that translates Western content into Russian, has brought at least eight of Carlson’s monologues and interviews to Russian language viewers this month, a search of its archives shows. “Why is it disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?” Carlson asked in one of those monologues in late January. “They’re both foreign countries that don’t care anything about the United States. Kind of strange.”
On Monday, Russian state-owned channel 360 rebroadcast a portion of Carlson’s Feb. 17 monologue in which he mocked news reports that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was expected to begin on Feb. 16 but had not yet occurred. “It is clear that Fox News is trying to make fun of this story,” the Russian host commented.
At a think tank event broadcast on C-SPAN, Pompeo remarked that he found Putin “very shrewd,” “very capable” and “savvy.” “I have enormous respect for him,” Pompeo said, calling Putin “an elegantly sophisticated counterpart.” State-controlled broadcaster Russia-1, immediately after showing Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s comments on the crisis during its Feb. 22 broadcast, featured Pompeo’s comment that he has “enormous respect” for Putin.
Praising a foreign aggressor when the world faces large-scale armed conflict has historically been considered off-limits in U.S. politics, especially when the sovereignty of U.S. allies and security of U.S. interests may be at stake. And for good reason: They can be used in propaganda against your nation’s interests, as Russian government-controlled media has done with Trump’s comments.
Reactions to the men’s comments from diplomatic experts and officials Grid contacted ranged from disappointment to outrage, even as several acknowledged Trump’s behavior was predictable.
“This just never happens. It should not happen. It’s very distressing,” said Rachel Epstein, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “But of course, it also is totally consistent with what former president Trump and his entire administration almost have done consistently throughout his presidency in the aftermath — which is precisely to dismantle the norms that we had taken for granted in the service of democratic governance and sound foreign policy.”
“Aids our enemies”
“If the former president and the former secretary of state want to praise dictators who carve up parts of neighboring countries and send in troops to occupy them, we should be grateful — Trump and Pompeo are telling us who they really are,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University who worked on Russia policy in the Reagan and Clinton administrations.
“They say they respect Putin, but you can be sure Putin does not respect them in return,” he added. “He probably feels amused contempt. It’s a little pathetic that they don’t see this.”
Asked about Trump and Pompeo’s statements on Wednesday, U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said, “I have no response. In fact, I have no words.”
Few mainstream Republicans weighed in on Trump’s remarks. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — who was censured by the GOP earlier this month for her role on the House Jan. 6 committee — said on Twitter that Trump’s commentary on Putin “aids our enemies.” She added: “Trump’s interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States of America.”
Nearly all Republican senators released statements condemning Putin’s invasion. “Putin’s cruel attack on the people of Ukraine is a gross breach of sovereignty,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “I condemn this violence and evil, and pray for the people of Ukraine.”
Former president George W. Bush also condemned the attack on Ukraine, saying in a statement that it “constitutes the gravest security crisis on the European continent since World War II.”
It’s not clear what motivations lie behind the pro-Russian comments from Trump and other right-wing figures. Epstein, of the University of Denver, opined that for the former president, it fits with an established pattern of behavior. “He’s very good at drawing attention to himself,” she said. “I think he finds that to be politically very favorable, and I think that’s, first and foremost, what’s going on.”
Daniel Chirot, professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies, said while the motives of Trump, Pompeo and Carlson may be “naive” or “treacherous,” the source of their appreciation for Putin seems earnest and clear: “Trump and those Fox commentators like Putin and want to create an authoritarian, illiberal country here.”