Putin’s ‘assault on humanity’ in Ukraine is looking really bad for Donald Trump

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Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has put the world on edge. Sunday’s announcement that he is putting Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert only compounds the anxiety and fear the invasion has unleashed.

Putin’s war of choice and his bellicose rhetoric have also already had significant political consequences in America. One of the most important of which is the serious political dilemma created for Putin’s longtime admirer, former President Donald Trump.

When Trump ran into earlier political difficulties, whether it was impeachment, pushback over his handling of COVID-19 or the furor over the Jan. 6 insurrection, his base remained solidly in his corner – as did most Republican officeholders. But this time, neither his base nor his allies in Congress have followed his lead.

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Moreover, his steadfast support also kept Putin in his corner and did not cost him politically. Not so this time.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Danang, Vietnam, in 2017.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Danang, Vietnam, in 2017.

Trump’s first comments on Putin may backfire

The shock of Putin’s aggression has shaken Trump’s usual allies and supporters, as he learned after he first commented on the invasion of Ukraine.

Trump’s bromance with Putin was very much on display in the former president’s initial comments on the invasion. In an interview Tuesday on the ultraconservative Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show, Trump said Putin’s strategy was “genius” and “savvy.”

As the former president saw it, there was nothing to condemn about the unfolding act of aggression in Europe, but much to admire.

There was, however, a response to Trump’s full-throated embrace of Russia’s authoritarian leader. That response signals a change in attitudes toward Russia even among Trump’s base, and it foreshadows a recalibration of the conversation about democracy and authoritarianism in the United States and abroad.

President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

Surprisingly, many of Trump’s usual cronies did not join his praise of Putin.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said, “Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is reckless and evil. … Putin’s actions must be met with serious consequence. … Putin must be held accountable for his actions.”

Even Fox News’ Tucker Carlson is changing his tune after initially characterizing the invasion as merely “a border dispute” and suggesting there was no reason for right-wing Americans to hate Putin. On his Thursday, he did an abrupt about-face, calling the invasion a “tragedy” and laying the responsibility for it squarely on Putin’s shoulders.

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And where Carlson goes Trump cannot be far behind.

So it was not surprising that in his Saturday speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump trimmed his sails a bit. He still insisted that Putin was “smart” while trying to pin the blame for what the Russian leader did on the Biden administration. “The problem is not that Putin is smart, which, of course, he’s smart,” Trump said. “The problem is that our leaders are dumb … and so far, allowed him to get away with this travesty and assault on humanity.”

But this time, unlike what he said or didn’t say on Tuesday, Trump condemned the invasion. Like Carlson, he called it “appalling,” saying, “It’s an outrage and an atrocity that should never have been allowed to occur.”

Shifting polls on Russia and Ukraine

Why this change in Trump’s tune?

First, for someone who is as attentive to polls as the former president, the early survey results clearly show Americans are not buying what the former president was selling.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Friday found that “a large and bipartisan majority of Americans supports economic sanctions on Russia for its military invasion of Ukraine, as public antipathy toward Russia climbs to Cold War levels.” About 62% of Republican respondents endorsed the United States and its European allies’ policy of imposing economic sanctions on Russia.

The Post noted, “More than three-quarters of Democrats and Republicans regard Russia negatively,” including 47% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans who view it as an “enemy.”

‘I need ammunition, not a ride’: Zelenskyy is the hero his country needs as Russia invades

At a joint news conference in Helsinki in 2018, President Donald Trump said of Russian President Vladimir Putin and election interference, "I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."

At a joint news conference in Helsinki in 2018, President Donald Trump said of Russian President Vladimir Putin and election interference, “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

A Gallup poll also released on Friday found that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans have a very or mostly unfavorable view of Russia in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion. “Republicans and Democrats,” Gallup reported, “are united in their negative views of Russia.”

Other surveys, however, offered Trump some solace and political room to maneuver. They pointed in the direction he took in his CPAC speech, namely blaming Biden for not being strong enough in standing up to Putin.

Declining support for Russia

Overseas, Trump saw signs of cracks in support for Russia among his authoritarian clique.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called Russia’s decision to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics “unacceptable” and said it violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose authoritarian control has been a model for Trumpists and who has been a longtime Russia apologist within NATO, condemned the Russian invasion and expressed support for “all the sanctions.”

Finally, seeing Russian tanks in Ukraine seems likely to alter the conversation about democracy and authoritarianism in America and the world.

As the Brookings Institution’s Isabell Sawhill put it in 2019, after the Cold War Americans “tended to take peace and prosperity for granted. They turned inward and focused more on getting ahead. They watched while our leaders cut our taxes, deregulated for both good and bad reasons. … They worried too little about the effects on people’s lives and the ultimate sustainability of democracy itself.”

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Putin’s invasion is a wake-up call for Americans who, as Sawhill says, have become complacent about democracy. And it is a stark warning about what the world would look like if the kind of “smart,” “savvy” autocrats Trump admires were to be in charge and able to do whatever they want.

All told, what Putin has done in Ukraine puts Trump in the kind of awkward political position that would require a “genius” to successfully navigate.

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College. He writes about American law and politics and is the author of “The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump allies shaken by Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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