Worldview: Force Trump to see truth about Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a New Year reception in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016.

Even GOP leaders were shocked last week when President Trump equated the United States with Russia when it came to killing - in a now notorious interview with Bill O'Reilly on Super Bowl Sunday.

After Trump gushed over Vladimir Putin, yet again, O'Reilly snapped: "Putin's a killer." Trump shot back: "You got a lot of killers. . . . What, you think our country's so innocent?"

Amazing! Now we have a Republican president who bashes America from the White House (sounds like the radical leftists of the 1970s). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) had to repudiate the president's denigration of his own country.

Yet Trump's moral equivalence between Russian and American behavior should not be quickly dismissed, because it has scary implications for Trump's policy-making at home and abroad.

First, we should be clear what we are talking about when critics use the word killer about Putin. The term does not refer to wars, say, in Afghanistan, or in the U.S. case (as Trump keeps citing) the 2003 Iraq war.

What it refers to is Russia's deliberate, massive bombing of civilians in Aleppo - a war crime - or the unsolved murders, on Putin's watch, of dozens of his political opponents as well as critical journalists.

Such killings don't appear to bother Trump in the least.

Candidate Trump made his feelings quite clear in December 2015, in an interview on Morning Joe. After another effusive round of Putin praise from Trump, Joe Scarborough pointed out that the Russian leader was "also a person that kills journalists and political opponents and invades countries." Trump's response: "At least he's a leader."

"But again, he kills journalists that don't agree with him," Scarborough insisted.

"Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe," was Trump's answer.

After being pushed by Scarborough to reluctantly condemn these murders, Trump quickly returned to his theme: "I've always felt fine about Putin. He's a strong leader, a powerful leader."

In other words, killing journalists or political opponents is immaterial so long as you show you are tough.

That's certainly Putin's modus operandi. Let's look at a few of the activists and journalists struck down on his watch.

In early February, writer and civil society activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, was rushed to a hospital in Moscow, where he lies in a coma. His family suspects he was poisoned, the second poison attack since he was felled in 2015, shortly after he testified before the U.S. Congress in favor of human-rights sanctions against Moscow.

Poison has become a notorious weapon of choice against Putin opponents. In 2005, the pro-Western, anti-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, told me in an interview that he was certain the KGB was behind a 2004 dioxin poisoning of his food that nearly killed him and left his face scarred.

In a celebrated case in London in 2006, Kremlin agents used Polonium-210 diluted in tea to poison a former KGB agent and Putin critic, Alexander Litvinenko; this was confirmed by an exhaustive British government investigation.

The murder weapon can also be a gun. Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin who led the political opposition to Putin, was shot dead while walking outside the Kremlin walls in 2015. I had dinner with the ebullient Nemtsov in Moscow in 2012, as he planned huge pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital that unnerved Putin. "Honest elections with a genuine opposition party is what we want," Nemtsov told me, in the run-up to rigged presidential elections. Three years later he was dead.

The list of murdered activists goes on, including Sergei Magnitsky, the courageous anticorruption lawyer who was beaten and left to die in jail. And I can never forget the gutsy democracy activist Galina Starovoiytova, who was shot dead in her stairwell in 1998 in St. Petersburg, when Putin was head of the KGB prior to becoming president.

Then we come to the Russian journalists murdered between 2000 and 2015 - at least 34 of them. They include Yuri Shchekochikhin, who had the courage to investigate crimes by the secret services and was poisoned by thallium in 2003. Also, the indomitable Anna Politkovskaya, who investigated human-rights crimes in Chechnya and survived a poison attack, only to be shot at her Moscow home.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. No silver bullet ties Putin to these attacks, and no one can tie them to the Kremlin. But a climate of impunity gives the green light for their commission. While fall guys have been convicted for a few of these crimes, the men who gave the orders are never discovered, and the killings go unsolved.

Of course, I haven't even touched on Putin's other tactic, ensuring that leading opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent 10 years in Siberia, and current opposition leader Alexei Navalny won't be able to run against the Russian president in 2018 because of trumped-up corruption charges.

Yet none of this disturbs our man in the White House. All he sees is a leader who gets things done.

This willful blindness is scary on two counts. The most obvious is that the president probably wishes he could rid himself of his opponents as neatly as Putin can (not by assassination but by somehow shutting those pests up). The second danger is apparent in Trump's painful eagerness, abetted by advisers Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, to do a deal with Putin; he (incorrectly) supposes such a deal will help vanquish ISIS and isolate Iran.

Someone, whether GOP leaders or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, has to convey this message to Trump: Unless you recognize Putin for what he is, you will get taken to the cleaners. And it's past time to junk your dreams of acting like a strongman. You live in a land where the Constitution still matters, where the judiciary is still independent - and where political opponents and journalists can't be silenced by Putinesque means.

trubin@phillynews.com

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