U.S. President Donald Trump gets a briefing before he tours the pre-commissioned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding facilities in Newport News, Virginia, U.S. on March 2, 2017.
At yesterday’s White House press briefing, a reporter noted Donald Trump’s recent track record towards authoritarian heads of state abroad and asked, “Does the president have a thing with these totalitarian leaders? Does he admire something about the way these guys conduct themselves?”
I assumed the answer would be, “Of course not.” Instead, Sean Spicer responded, “The president clearly, as I’ve said, understands the threat the North Korea poses. Having someone with the potential nuclear capability to strike another country and potentially our country as some point in the future….”
The president’s press secretary never did get to the heart of the question: what’s with Trump’s fondness for autocrats and would-be dictators? The New York Times reported today, the world is noticing:
President Trump continued his outreach to rogue leaders on Monday, declaring he would meet North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, provided the circumstances were right, even as the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, brushed aside the president’s invitation to visit the White House, saying he might be “too busy.”
Mr. Trump’s unorthodox overtures – to a nuclear-armed despot who brutally purged his rivals, and an insurgent politician accused of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects – illustrated the president’s confidence in his ability to make deals and his willingness to talk to virtually anyone.
Above all, they highlighted his penchant for flouting the norms of diplomacy, no matter his larger aim.
We’re not just talking about one or two leaders, whom Trump tolerates in the name of diplomacy or to grudgingly advance U.S. interests. We’re talking about a growing group of autocrats – Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte – who’ve enjoyed Trump’s public praise because he admires the ways in which they lead.
This isn’t about some tactical foreign-policy maneuver; this is simply an American president’s candor about the kind of strongman he finds impressive.
With this in mind, when a reporter asks the White House press secretary if the president has “a thing” for totalitarian leaders, and Spicer doesn’t answer directly, it may be because the answer is unsettling.
Indeed, this has been an area of unfortunate consistency for Trump. He was, after all, a presidential candidate who said he was impressed with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – not exactly the kind of thing one generally hears from an American.
I’m reminded of something Hillary Clinton said last June:
“I have to say, I don’t understand Donald’s bizarre fascination with dictators and strongmen who have no love for America. He praised China for the Tiananmen Square massacre; he said it showed strength. He said, ‘You’ve got to give Kim Jong Un credit’ for taking over North Korea – something he did by murdering everyone he saw as a threat, including his own uncle, which Donald described gleefully, like he was recapping an action movie. And he said if he were grading Vladimir Putin as a leader, he’d give him an A.
Nearly a year later, this issue is back with a vengeance.
What the political world should take the time to discuss is the implication of an American president who publicly shares his fondness for those wielding dictatorial power. What does this tell the world about the United States and its commitment to human rights? What kind of imprimatur does this extend to autocrats who no longer fear American condemnation? Why are U.S. adversaries enjoying praise from the president while U.S. allies feel increasingly alienated?
What are we learning about the kind of leader Donald J. Trump wishes he could be?