Donald Trump's decision to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin's leadership skills relative to President Obama's is getting a lot of attention, but what Trump actually said is much worse.
To be clear, though it's an odd thing to say about an American adversary, just because you say that somebody has been a strong leader, it doesn't necessarily mean you agree with what that leader's actions. You could, for instance, state that Adolph Hitler was a very effective speaker, without actually endorsing the content of his speeches.
I'm uncomfortable with vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence's statement that, "I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country." Or, as radio host and Washington Examiner columnist Hugh Hewitt put it, "Putin's an evil man. POTUS a good but incompetent man. Putin has served his country's national interest better." But neither arguments are as bad as what Trump said in Wednesday night's "Commander in Chief Forum," in which Trump not only said Obama was a weaker leader, but he implied that Obama was just as morally bad as Putin, if not worse.
Here was the relevant part of the exchange with NBC's Matt Lauer:
TRUMP: Well, [Putin] does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here. Look, look…
LAUER: He's also a guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world, and according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers…
TRUMP: Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?
(Bold emphasis mine.)
Trump is dismissing actions Putin took threatening neighbors and working against U.S. interests by essentially saying, well, Obama has done a lot of things that were just as bad. This is exactly the type of moral equivalency that conservatives spent decades fighting against — when those on the far left tried to portray the U.S. and Soviet Union as morally the same, or slam U.S. as being the real terrorists in the Middle East. Imagine the reaction on the right if, in 2008, candidate Obama said Hugo Chavez was a great leader, and when confronted with his human rights violations, said, "Well you could say the same about what George Bush did in Iraq."
This is very important. Trump is not merely saying that Putin has been more effectively advancing his nation's interests than Obama, but he's saying that none of the evil actions he's taking have been any worse than Obama. And that is reprehensible and indefensible. And nobody on the right should be defending him.