Page: Trump, Putin have plenty in common

Clarence Page

We should not be too surprised by the unlikely bromance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. After all, the audacious billionaire and Russian autocrat have a lot in common.

Both have outsized egos that would humble a rap star. They pal around with the super-rich, even as they successfully promote themselves as populist heroes of the working class. They both criticize the media that criticize them, yet neither is a stranger to the arts of media manipulation or, in Putin’s case, intimidation.

All of which may have given Putin a special awareness of Trump’s biggest vulnerability: If you want to win Trump’s heart, stroke his ego.

Maybe that’s why when Putin was asked in a Moscow news conference for his thoughts on a possible Trump presidency, Putin said that Trump was “brilliant,” according to some translations, and “very talented, no doubt about that.”

Trump was delighted. He called Putin’s remarks “a great honor,” especially the part about Trump being “brilliant.”

“When people call you ‘brilliant’ it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia,” said Trump on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“I’ve always felt fine about Putin,” Trump said. “He’s a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader. ... He’s actually got popularity within his country. ... I think he’s up in the 80s. You see where Obama’s in the 30s and low 40s and (Putin’s) up in the 80s.”

Maybe. But Trump’s barely contained exuberance sounded eerily similar to President George W. Bush after his first face-to-face meeting with Putin in 2001. Bush came away with warm enough feelings to nickname the Russian leader “Pootie-poot,” according to news reports, and describe him as “very straightforward and trustworthy.”

But all of that came before Pootie-poot revealed his dark side. In the summer of 2008, Putin invaded Georgia. His troops have since pushed on to annex the Crimea and join Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad to fight both the Islamic State and Syrian rebels, some of whom are backed by the United States.

Still Trump sounded eager to defend Putin, even against widespread allegations that he “kills journalists, political opponents and ... invades countries,” in the words of “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough.

“Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” Trump said. “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on, a lot of stupidity and that’s the way it is.”

While critics have been hard-pressed to prove Putin ordered killings of journalists, he is widely believed to have allowed an atmosphere of impunity toward those who do kill journalists.

To Trump I recommend the website of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (full disclosure: I’m a CPJ board member). There he’ll find profiles of 36 journalists who have been killed in Russia since 1992 either while doing their work or in direct reprisal for doing it.

Opposition politicians and other activists also have been killed. It is possible that individuals loyal to Putin acted on their own. Or maybe another group in Russia’s various power networks committed the atrocities.

Either way, Putin’s casually dismissive attitude toward murdered journalists and dissidents helps to explain Russia’s culture of impunity toward such killings. It didn’t begin with Putin but he’s not doing enough to stop it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.