Is accepting a compliment from Putin a good idea?


Vladimir Putin called Donald Trump “brilliant” on Thursday, and Trump accepted the compliment. He said to America-blaming liberal Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, “at least he’s a leader.”  Then in Iowa, he went on to say Putin is right, “I am brilliant.”

It’s typical Trump, and I wouldn’t expect any different from him. But that doesn’t make it wise.

And as much as I disagree with Joe Scarborough on pretty much everything, I have to give him a point when he challenged Trump on accepting the compliment so glibly.

“Well, also it’s a person who kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries,” Scarborough said. “Obviously, that would be a concern, would it not?”

Coming from a liberal journalist, it’s totally expected we’d hear about Putin’s alleged hit jobs against the press and his opponents. Of course, we’d never hear about the litany of dead F.O.B.’s (Friends of Bill) like James McDougal, Mary Caitrin Mahoney, Vince Foster, Ron Brown, C. Victor Raiser II, Montgomery Raiser, Paul Tully, Ed Willey, Jerry Luther Parks, and a whole lot more.

Because Clinton’s friends’ deaths are conspiracy theories, but we are expected to accept with absolute certainty that Putin was behind any Russian deaths. It’s likely Putin was behind them, though. (We may never know about the Clintons.)

The Russian leader is out for power, pure and simple. He’s an old-line Soviet Russian who understands that Communism was merely the mechanism by which the state wielded power. Putin has managed to wield the same power–and more–without taking up the hammer and sickle (at least not yet), all while retaining some patina of respectability in the world as a democratically elected official in a free Russia.

Is is smart to acknowledge compliments and return praise (“at least he’s a leader”) from such a man? Looking at Russia’s post-Soviet history and Putin’s background yields some clues.

Breaking a 70-year streak of communist rule, with a few hundred years of oppressive Tzars before that, simply does not happen in 24 years. In 1991, Putin was 39 years old. He resigned on August 20–the day of the attempted coup which nearly overthrew Gorbachev–from his intelligence post at Leningrad State University. Putin worked in the KGB his entire career until the end. By no means was he, or is he now, the image of the Soviet bureaucrat apparatchik. His Ph.D. is in international law, with a slant toward business law. He studied how oil and gas and national energy policy would be the key to Russian economic success; he wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject.

It is no accident that Putin is in power (and absolute power at that). He isn’t a crude kleptocrat like Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko, who lived better than a king while his people starved. Putin carefully crafts his image, a hero to his people, a savior for greater Russia. He is media-savvy, ruthless, and politically apt on the international stage. In education, theory, and raw horsepower, he’s point for point more than a match with Barack Obama.

In fact, I believe Obama and Putin agree on more than they disagree.

It’s unclear whether that’s true for Trump, but accepting Putin’s praise doesn’t do much to refute the possibility. Trump made a mistake in commenting on Putin’s remarks. Inviting the Russian president into our political dynamic is not only dumb, it’s also dangerous.

There’s still time for Trump to recant, or at least distance himself.  I hope he takes the opportunity.

(crossposted from sgberman.com)