With the U.S. public showing a vast disapproval of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the wake of his invasion of Ukraine, former President Donald Trump has sought to explain his glowing appraisal of the Russian leader's moves leading up to the war.
On Wednesday, Trump released a statement in which he parsed the semantics of using the word "genius" when referring to Putin's military strategy.
"The Fake News is also saying I called Putin a 'genius,' when actually, and to be precise, I called his build-up on the Ukraine border before the war started genius because I assumed he would easily be able to negotiate a great deal with Russia," Trump said in the written statement.
Trump, who seems likely to run for president again in 2024, did not explain why he had praised Putin for seeking to leverage the threat of military conflict to undermine Western interests. While conceding that he had misread Putin's intentions, Trump also placed blame with President Biden's administration for how the war started.
"Unfortunately, and tragically, Putin went too far, acting on the WEAK Foreign Policy of the Biden Administration. The Fake News said I called him a genius during the war. No, I was describing the great negotiating posture he had prior to the unfortunate decision to enter Ukraine and fight. There was nothing 'genius' about that!"
Trump's attempt to clarify his "genius" comment is another signal of how strong the political winds have shifted on Russia and Ukraine. In the days before the war, prominent voices like Fox News host Tucker Carlson questioned why the U.S. should side with Kyiv. Trump, who has long praised Putin, continued to do so. On Feb. 22, just before the Russian invasion, Trump called Putin's strategy "genius" and "savvy."
"I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, 'This is genius.' Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful," Trump said on "The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show." "He used the word 'independent,' and 'We're gonna go out and we're gonna go in and we're gonna help keep peace.' You gotta say that's pretty savvy."
But as the devastation unfolded, the American public and politicians of both major U.S. parties have been uniform in their opposition to the attack. According to a Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday, 92% of Americans said they have little or no confidence in Putin's handling of world affairs. Just 6% expressed confidence in him.
Trump's praise of Putin was not an isolated incident, either. As recently as last weekend, for instance, Trump reiterated his view that the Russian autocrat is "smart."
"The smartest one gets to the top," Trump told a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally in Georgia. "That didn't work so well recently in our country. But they ask me, 'Is Putin smart?' Yes, Putin was smart. And I actually thought he was going to be negotiating. I said, 'That's a hell of a way to negotiate, put 200,000 soldiers on the border.'"
The affinity between Trump and Putin is apparently mutual. On Russian state television Tuesday, a host called for regime change in the U.S., before Biden's term officially ends, "to again help our partner Trump to become President."
John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, believes that Putin views Trump as useful toward his goal of weakening the NATO alliance.
"In a second Trump term, I think he may well have withdrawn from NATO," Bolton told the Washington Post in early March. "And I think Putin was waiting for that."
As Sen. Mitt Romney stated Tuesday, were Trump to win a second White House turn in 2024, NATO "would rethink whether they can count on the United States," and there's little doubt that such an outcome would please Putin. Seen in this light, the debate over the words Trump has used to describe the Russian president may have an impact on how he fares should he run in 2024.
And although Trump denies calling Putin a genius, he has frequently boasted about an identical compliment he says Putin gave him. Back when he campaigned for president in 2016, Trump often said Putin had praised him.
"Putin was very nice to me, he said Donald Trump is a genius," Trump said then.
But things change.