Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters during a COVID-19 briefing in April 2020 at the White House with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to his left. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Watching Russian leader Vladimir Putin over the past few years, many words come to mind. Strongman. Ruthless. Megalomaniacal.
If you’re former secretary of state and Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, though, those words are “talented,” “savvy,” and “capable statesman.”
With Russia in the process of invading Ukraine — a sovereign nation with an elected president — we should all pay attention to Pompeo’s words. (A hat tip to McClatchy correspondent Michael Wilner, who assembled the brutal dossier.) How much praise should a man who clearly wants to be president hand out to a brutal tyrant? What does that say about his own priorities and goals?
We should also pay attention to what former President Donald Trump and conservative talking heads like Tucker Carlson are saying.
Here’s Trump: “I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine, of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.”
Here’s Carlson: “It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”
He is a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts.
– Mike Pompeo
The word that comes to my mind watching these supposed conservatives: extraordinary.
No one wants or expects the United States to go to war with Russia. That’s not in the cards, and I doubt few in either party would support such a move. But Putin’s flagrant violations of international law and his well-known determination to reconstitute the former Soviet Union should alarm everyone. We don’t need a new Cold War, with the accompanying political instability and geopolitical conflicts.
The questions return. Why do Pompeo, Trump and Carlson praise this former KGB agent, who brutally represses dissent and loots the country he leads? Why hail the smarts of a man plausibly linked to apartment bombings that killed 300 people?
Why say: “He is a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts,” as Pompeo did during a Fox News appearance?
The answer hurts. Much of the modern U.S. conservative movement has transformed into an autocracy-hungry, power-worshipping faction. They don’t see Putin as a threat to liberal democracy. They see him and Russia as a model for their own leaders to emulate. Far-right and white supremacist groups believe much the same. That’s not even mentioning the strings the Russian leader pulled to aid Trump’s election in 2016.
Pompeo has moderated his tone slightly in recent days, tweeting Monday that “Vladimir Putin is the aggressor. The Ukrainians are the victims. We should never shy away from that.”
That’s the right message, finally. But which comments did they hear in Moscow?
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