Why Donald Trump Admires Putin So Much

Ever since the campaign season leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump's relationships with Russia and, in particular, its president Vladimir Putin, have been part of the narrative surrounding the real estate mogul and his political career. In December 2016, after the Obama administration announced sanctions against Russia for alleged interference in the 2016 election, Trump praised Putin for not retaliating against the U.S. "[It was a] great move," he said, as NBC News reported at the time. "I always knew he was very smart!"

Following the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, which spurned almost unanimous criticism worldwide, Trump continued to praise Putin. For example, speaking to a conservative gathering, the 45th president again called Putin "smart," as well as "savvy" and "genius," even as he called the invasion of Ukraine "appalling" and an "outrage," as CNN reported.

Trump's praise for Putin, even after the invasion of Ukraine, has been a source of consternation for those who don't support him, as The New York Times reports, and has been met largely with silence within his own party. But the reasons Trump seems to admire the man so much largely depend on whom you ask.

An admiration for strong-armed dictators

By all accounts, Russia has had dismal human rights record even before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Amnesty International provides a lengthy list of human rights issues in Russia under Putin.

CNN writer Chris Cillizza points to Trump's history of praising men who rule their countries with an iron fist. For example, Hungary's Viktor Orbán, who, according to the New Yorker, has been cracking down on LGBTQ rights and the free press in his country, drew praise from the 45th president, who called him a "strong leader" and said he's doing a "powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary." Of China's Xi Jinping, whose human rights record is dismal according to Human Rights Watch, Trump said he is "a strong gentleman ... a strong guy, tough guy." Per CNN, Trump has also praised dictators such as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and North Korea's Kim Jong Un (pictured above with Trump).

Cillizza posits that Trump's fondness for these men comes from his belief that might makes right. "If you can take something, you should. Being perceived as strong — in your own country and in the world — is all that matters [to Trump]," Cillizza said.

Turning America into a dictatorship?

Donald Trump's fondness for dictators informed how Trump wanted to run the United States, according to a book by his former lawyer and "fixer," Michael Cohen, via Business Insider. "Locking up your political enemies, criminalizing dissent, terrifying or bankrupting the free press through libel lawsuits — Trump's all-encompassing vision wasn't evident to me before he began to run for president," Cohen said in his book. 

However, it was evident to Politico writer Nick Gass back in 2015, after yet another Russian journalist had died under suspicious circumstances, possibly on orders from Putin. MSNBC analyst Joe Scarborough interviewed Trump about Putin and asked about the Russian president's alleged role in murdering journalists. Trump's response seemed to praise Putin. "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, you know unlike what we have in this country," Trump said.

Similarly, NBC News guest columnist Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School, wrote that Trump was enamored of Putin's control over Russia and wanted to recreate it here. "Putin's brand of power — a strong man in control of a giant country — is clearly attractive to Trump," Krushcheva wrote.

Running Russia like a company

Before becoming a politician, Trump had been a celebrity for decades, largely as a real estate mogul and businessman. He never stopped being a businessman, even while President of the United States, according to a Cohen via Business Insider. As they report, Trump is enamored with the idea of Putin running Russia as if it was his personal company. "[Trump admired Putin's ability] to take over an entire nation and run it like it was his personal company — like the Trump Organization, in fact," as Cohen said of his former boss, via The Daily Mail.

Trump is also allegedly obsessed with Putin's wealth, according to Cohen. Although the Russian president's net worth is hard to nail down, Trump himself was apparently convinced that it eclipsed his (Trump's), and was probably that of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. "[Putin is] the richest man in the world by a multiple," Trump reportedly said of Putin.

Mutual dislike of Hillary Clinton

Another thing that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have in common is their mutual dislike of former First Lady, and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. As Politico reported in 2015, Clinton has been on Putin's list since at least 2011. At the time, protests had broken out in Russia over concerns that the election that put Putin into power had been rigged. Putin was having none of it, telling Russians that Clinton had said the elections were "dishonest and unfair" and that, with the help of the U.S. State Department, Clinton had somehow invoked the protests in order to undermine his regime. Politico writer Michael Crowley suggested at the time that Russia's alleged hack of the Democratic National Committee's email server was intended as revenge against Clinton.

As to Russians hacking American email servers, Trump wasn't particularly concerned. As The New York Times reported, Trump even encouraged the Russians to publish whatever they found in those emails. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press," Trump said at the time.

The feeling is (mostly) mutual

It's beyond question that Donald Trump admires Vladimir Putin, but is the admiration one-sided? In a 2021 interview with NBC News, the Russian president praised his former counterpart. "I believe that former U.S. President Mr. Trump is an extraordinary individual, talented individual, otherwise he would not have become U.S. president," Putin said, while also calling him "colorful" and admitting that Trump is not everyone's cup of tea. Further, in comparing Trump to Joe Biden, who months earlier had been sworn in as president, Putin referenced Trump's propensity for acting impulsively and noted that Biden, as a career politician, would be unlikely to do that.

Regardless of his feelings about Trump personally, by some accounts, Putin was keen to see him elected president in 2016. As The Washington Post reports, Trump supported foreign policies that Putin supported, including the idea that the Crimean peninsula, at the time part of Ukraine, should be considered part of Russia.