The bromance between President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, long a source of puzzlement and alarm in the West, has gotten even more disturbing. This weekend, Mr.Trump dismissed a question about why he respected “a killer” like Mr. Putin by drawing a moral equivalency between the United States and Russia.
“You got a lot of killers,” Mr. Trump told Bill O’Reilly of the slavishly pro-Trump Fox News. “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Mr. Trump also said he respected Mr. Putin, noting: “He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not.”
Asserting the moral and political superiority of the United States over Russia has not traditionally been a difficult maneuver for American presidents. But rather than endorsing American exceptionalism, Mr. Trump seemed to appreciate Mr. Putin’s brutality — which includes bombing civilians in Syria and, his accusers allege, responsibility for a trail of dead political opponents and journalists at home — and suggested America acts the same way.
There’s no doubt that the United States has made terrible mistakes, like invading Iraq in 2003 and torturing terrorism suspects after Sept. 11. President Barack Obama often drew fire from Republicans for acknowledging the obvious — there are limits to American power and sometimes decisions to employ military force have resulted in “unintended consequences.” American drone strikes against extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, have sometimes killed civilians.
But no American president has done what Mr. Putin has done in silencing nearly all independent media, crushing dissent, snuffing out Russia’s once-incipient democracy, invading Ukraine, interfering in the American election — apparently on Mr. Trump’s behalf — and trying to destabilize Europe. At least in recent decades, American presidents who took military action have been driven by the desire to promote freedom and democracy, sometimes with extraordinary results, as when Germany and Japan evolved after World War II from vanquished enemies into trusted, prosperous allies.
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Since taking office, Mr. Trump has shown little support for America’s traditional roles as a champion of universal values like freedom of the press and tolerance. In fact, as he has worked to cut Mr. Putin slack, Mr. Trump has bashed allies and laid the groundwork for an aggressive campaign that could lead to conflict with Iran, which the Pentagon has ranked behind Russia as a threat.
Mr. Trump’s willingness to kowtow to Mr. Putin in the Fox interview was too much even for the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who rebuked Mr. Trump, called Mr. Putin “a thug” and rejected any equivalence between America and Russia. The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, urged the F.B.I. to investigate Mr. Trump’s finances and personal ties to find out if the Russian government was blackmailing him.
Mr. Trump’s obsequiousness toward the Russian leader and his administration’s confusing policy is emboldening both sides in Ukraine. Last week, the conflict between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists reignited. The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, blamed Russia for escalating the fighting. She had previously said sanctions imposed on Russia because of its 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion into eastern Ukraine would stay in place.
But on Saturday, Mr. Trump spoke by phone to the Ukrainian president and later issued a statement that did not condemn Russia, played down the conflict as a border dispute and made no reference to sanctions. On Monday, European Union leaders, once the weak link in standing firm against Russian aggression, vowed to uphold sanctions. At least somebody is showing principled leadership.