Trump: I thought Putin was negotiating over Ukraine

Trump: I thought Putin was negotiating over Ukraine
AP Photo/John Raoux

On Tuesday night, former President Donald Trump gave an interview to the Washington Examiner, much of which was focused on the current situation in Ukraine and the erratic behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Over the course of the interview, Trump avowed that the accusations of him being soft on Putin were “a bad rap.” He sought to remind people that he had imposed some of the largest sanctions on Putin that had ever been put in place. (Before the current time, of course.) He also noted that he had closed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and it was Joe Biden who opened up development on the project after taking office. (Germany has since shut it down entirely.) But one of the more interesting parts of the interview revealed Trump’s admission that he had misread Putin in the days leading up to the invasion. He believed that Putin was just engaging in some hardball negotiations and wouldn’t actually move into the country. And he admitted he felt “surprised” when it happened.

Former President Donald Trump said in an interview that he is “surprised” Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine and further cracked down on freedom inside Russia, explaining that he believed the strongman’s threats were a negotiating tactic.

“I’m surprised — I’m surprised. I thought he was negotiating when he sent his troops to the border. I thought he was negotiating,” Trump told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday evening during a wide-ranging telephone interview from Mar-a-Lago, his private social club and political headquarters in Palm Beach, Florida. “I thought it was a tough way to negotiate but a smart way to negotiate.”

“I figured he was going to make a good deal like everybody else does with the United States and the other people they tend to deal with — you know, like every trade deal. We’ve never made a good trade deal until I came along,” Trump added. “And then he went in — and I think he’s changed. I think he’s changed. It’s a very sad thing for the world. He’s very much changed.”

As far as the accusations coming from both sides of the aisle that Trump was too chummy with Putin, he cast those aside as well. He said that he was tough on Putin (again citing the sanctions) but that he “got along with him,” just as he did with most foreign leaders.

Trump seems to be giving an honest assessment here. If he was “surprised” when Putin went ahead with the invasion, he was hardly alone. I’ve noted here previously that Putin kept many of us guessing right up until he crossed the border. Biden turned out to be correct in the end, having said all along that the intelligence indicated the invasion was imminent. But Trump has been out of office for a while now and he doesn’t get daily intelligence briefings anymore.

So why would he have assumed Putin’s troop buildup was part of a negotiating tactic? Well, we’re talking about the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal. Sometimes we all share a tendency to project our own impulses onto others. I’m guessing that a lifelong negotiator would look at Putin’s actions in that light. And if Russia had somehow had most of their demands met, it might have turned out to be nothing more than that.

The other interesting comment from the interview that caught my attention was Trump’s observation that Putin has “very much changed.” It’s not the first time we’ve heard this theory. Others have speculated that Putin may have lost some of his grasp on reality over the course of his pandemic isolation. And Trump spent a lot of time talking to and dealing with Putin over his four years in office. He’s probably in a good position to judge a dramatic shift in Vladimir Putin’s actions. And that’s a frightening proposition for the entire world. Russia has a lot of nukes but Putin used to be enough of a tactician to know he couldn’t risk a first strike. I’m not quite so sure that’s true anymore.

So will Donald Trump be looking to get his old office back in 2024? He’s still not saying definitely one way or the other. But if he does, that’s one thing I won’t find myself being “surprised” over. He seems to miss the job.

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