(Trends Wide) — Americans rarely pay much attention to international events. Busy lives leave little time for distant events with unknown protagonists.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has become a rare exception, his carnage in full view through coverage for anyone with a video screen. But Americans may not yet have absorbed this disturbing reality: The US president who left office just 14 months ago has sided with the butcher.
That’s right: In the fight that now unites the free world against lawless aggression by an autocrat, the most recent former US president sided with the autocrat.
It’s not just that Donald Trump recently praised the “genius” of Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Since his political career began, Trump has backed Putin in ways directly connected to Russia’s quest to subjugate that country.
For years, relations between Russia and the celebrated real estate executive have been lubricated with money. There was the development funding Trump’s sons boasted about, the Palm Beach mansion he sold to a Russian oligarch for $95 million four years after buying it for $41 million; the Manhattan project in partnership with a mob-linked Russian émigré.
He tried to put up a Trump Tower in Moscow even while he was running for president. In 2013, when he hosted a beauty pageant there, Trump tweeted, “Will (Putin) become my new best friend?”
Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine the following year. The protests in Kyiv forced a Kremlin ally to resign from the presidency. The ousted president, who fled to Russia, had been advised by an American political consultant. That consultant, Paul Manafort, later became Trump’s campaign manager in 2016.
Candidate Trump spoke compassionately about Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. He reflected on the lifting of sanctions to smooth relations with Putin.
“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump told ABC News in July 2016. That had been Putin’s justification for the invasion.
President Trump sought to undo a punishment meted out to Putin by proposing that Russia rejoin the G7, an organization of the world’s leading industrial economies. Other members, who had partnered with the US to expel Russia during the presidency of Barack Obama, refused to participate.
His administration implemented some new sanctions against Russia at the insistence of national security officials and Congress. Trump himself objected.
“In almost every case, the sanctions were imposed with Trump complaining that we were being too harsh,” his former national security adviser, John Bolton, recently told Newsmax.
Russia threatened Ukraine during Trump’s term. He strengthened Putin’s hand in several ways.
Trump called into question the United States’ decades-long commitment to defending European partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Aides feared he might try to withdraw from NATO if he won a second term.
It fomented discord at home, furthering Putin’s goal of undermining American resolve. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who doesn’t try to unite the American people,” his former defense secretary, James Mattis, said in 2020.
Trump shielded Russia from opprobrium. Echoing Russian propaganda, he led fellow Republicans in smearing Ukraine by falsely suggesting that Kyiv, rather than Moscow, had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
“This is a fictitious narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” Fiona Hill, who led Russia policy on Trump’s National Security Council, said in a 2019 congressional impeachment inquiry. .
The Republicans who protect Trump present impeachment as Democratic partisanship. But it goes back to Trump’s alignment with Russia against his vulnerable neighbor.
Congress had voted to provide Ukraine with nearly $400 million in military aid. Trump delayed the shipment.
“I would like you to do us a favor,” Trump told Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in his infamous July 2019 phone call.
The favor was for Zelensky to discredit his presidential rival Joe Biden by investigating him and his son, Hunter. Zelensky never delivered.
Things have not turned out the way Trump or Putin wanted.
Trump lost re-election. Biden, who defeated him, is now leading the global effort to stop Putin’s aggression.
Rather than split under military and economic pressure, NATO and the European Union have come together to support Ukraine. Within the United States, the two normally feuding political parties have joined forces to condemn Russian savagery.
Republican senators who voted to acquit Trump of those impeachment charges cheered when Biden criticized the Russian leader in last week’s State of the Union address. A “Putin Accountability Act” sponsored by Republicans in Congress seeks to sanction, among others, the Russian oligarch who more than doubled Trump’s money in that Palm Beach mansion.
Even Trump has changed his tune. A week after praising Putin’s strategic acumen, he denounced Russia’s attack on Ukraine as “a holocaust.”
The former president remains the leading candidate for the GOP nomination in 2024. But the longer the bloodshed in Ukraine continues, the greater Putin’s responsibility will be.
Trump and those around him wanted the controversy to go away. His former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who overheard the notorious Trump-Zelensky call, rebuked a reporter who asked about Ukraine a few months later.
“Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” Pompeo responded to Mary Louise Kelly of National Public Radio.
They may not have cared then. Unfortunately for Trump, they now care.