By Barbara Slavin
Throughout a long and dispiriting campaign, Donald Trump has been consistent on at least one topic: his admiration for Vladimir Putin and unwillingness to blame Russia for provocative and aggressive actions against the United States and others.
During Sunday’s second debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump continued to try to minimize or deny Russian misdeeds.
Just days after the Obama administration formally accused Russia of attempting to interfere with the U.S. electoral process, Trump sought to cast doubt on solid intelligence that Russia is behind hacking Democratic Party emails, going so far as to say, “Maybe there is no hacking.” This was particularly rich given Trump’s encouragement of Russia just months ago to find and release deleted emails from Clinton’s private server.
Trump also insisted that Russia and its allies in Syria are attacking the group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS) despite the fact that Russia has been focusing its brutal air power in recent weeks against thousands of civilians in besieged eastern Aleppo. Secretary of State John Kerry even suggested that Russia could be the target of prosecution for war crimes for bombing humanitarian aid convoys and hospitals.
“I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together,” Trump said at the debate, contradicting more hawkish views expressed a week earlier by his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. As for Aleppo, Trump dismissed its fate with an offhand comment: “I think that it basically has fallen. OK?”
What explains the bromance between a man who purports to put “America first” and a foreign leader whose authoritarianism at home is only exceeded by brutality abroad?
Trump denies there are financial reasons for the affinity despite recent investigative reporting that shows extensive business dealings between Trump companies and Russian businessmen.
During the debate, the GOP candidate – who in the past has bragged about his experience in Russia running a Miss Universe pageant – claimed, “I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.”
Since Trump continues to refuse to release his tax returns on the excuse that he is barred from doing so because he is under routine audit – something the Internal Revenue Service says is not a factor — there is no way to verify his claims.
With or without business ties to Russia, Trump has other apparent similarities to Putin that should give American voters pause.
Trump’s understanding of and appreciation for constitutional democracy remains appallingly slim.
During the debate, he threatened if elected president to have his attorney general appoint a special prosecutor to revive an investigation into Clinton’s private emails as secretary of state – a matter already exhaustively examined by the FBI, which found no legal cause to prosecute her. Trump went so far as to tell Clinton “you’d be in jail” if he were in charge.
Putin can, and has, ordered the arrest – or worse — of political opponents. But in the United States, there is supposed to be a separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches.
Trump also shares Putin’s male chauvinistic attitudes toward women judging by the salacious tape recording from 2005 that was leaked to the Washington Post last week and blew up social media and much of Trump’s remaining support among establishment Republican politicians.
Under questioning at the debate, Trump said that his claims on the tape to have sexually assaulted young women were “locker room talk” and that unlike Clinton’s husband, Bill, Trump had not actually gone through with these crimes.
Bill Clinton, while he has admitted adultery and was impeached, although not convicted, for a dalliance with Monica Lewinsky two decades ago, has never been charged with assault. Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between seduction and unwanted sexual advances.
Trump’s demeanor during the debate — while less shaky than in his first one-on-one encounter with Hillary Clinton — did nothing to soften his boorish image. He lurked menacingly behind Clinton as she moved to answer audience questions and continued his pattern of interrupting her, although less frequently than in the first debate.
With his foul language on the leaked tape still fresh in viewers’ minds, Trump chose to go on the attack rather than express contrition. It would be the height of irony if come November 8, Trump’s lack of empathy for women and minorities in general insured the election of the first woman president of the United States.