Analysis

Trump's Pantheon of Praise for Dictators

Hassan Rouhani is only the latest strongman to get unusually fulsome words from the president.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and President Trump at the ASEAN Summit on Nov. 13, 2017, in Manila, Philippines.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Sept. 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump on Tuesday offered kind words about Hassan Rouhani, tweeting that the Iranian president is no doubt “an absolutely lovely man.” With this odd praise for the repressive dictator of a country the United States sees as behind much of the terrorism in the world, the president added Rouhani to his pantheon of dictators deserving of his praise and, in many cases, envy.

Ever since he declared his presidential candidacy, Trump has gushed about some of the worst abusers of human rights and most antidemocratic leaders in the world. He has suggested they are beloved by their people, effective, and strong. His admiration for their strength only grew when Trump took office and confronted the checks and balances built into the American system. Speaking of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in June, the president told Fox News, “He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”

In addition to Rouhani, here are nine other dictators praised by the president:

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

Derided by Trump just a year ago as “little Rocket Man,” he is now the president’s best friend. After their summit in Singapore, Trump saluted Kim as “a very worthy, very smart negotiator” and “a very talented man” who “loves his country very much.” When Fox’s Bret Baier reminded him that Kim kills his own people, the president shrugged it off. “He’s a tough guy. When you take over a country.... I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have. If you can do that at 27 years old, that’s one in 10,000 who could do that. So he’s a very smart guy.” Former Republican Rep. David Jolly was appalled when Trump said “it was an honor” to meet Kim. “For the record of history,” Jolly tweeted, “never before has a U.S. president spoken this way of a dictator accused of crimes against his own people.” Trump is undeterred, tweeting this month, “There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other!”

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Trump’s love affair with Putin first blossomed during the campaign, when Putin said he thought Trump was “bright.” A grateful Trump responded, “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.... He is really very much of a leader.” He added that Putin has “been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.” And he marveled that “he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to different pollsters.” Trump also praised Putin's “very strong control” of the Kremlin.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Again, Trump's praise of Assad was in contrast to his scorn for President Obama. “In terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, and our president is not doing so well,” he told Fox in 2016. He also downplayed his brutal repression of human rights. “Assad’s a bad guy, but they’re all bad guys,” Trump said, suggesting that he was no worse than the rebels supported by Washington.

Former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi

Trump has several times voiced nostalgia for Gadhafi, the anti-American Libyan strongman who ruled for four decades before being killed by rebels in 2011. “We would be so much better off if Gadhafi were in charge right now,” he said in one of the campaign debates, stating that Gadhafi kept terrorists in check.

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein

In that same campaign debate, Trump blasted the American role in ousting Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq after three decades of brutality and repression. “We shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “We shouldn’t have destabilized Saddam Hussein, right. He was a bad guy, really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte famously called both Pope Francis and President Obama a “son of a whore.” But Trump calls Duterte a friend and boasts of their “great relationship.” He has praised Duterte’s extrajudicial crackdown on drugs, despite the estimated 4,000 people who were killed in that crackdown. Trump has held Duterte's success up as an example for the United States to follow and has called for the death penalty for drug dealers. The Philippine president has basked in the praise, telling reporters that Trump “speaks my language.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Trump’s praise for Erdogan goes back to 2016 when he mocked those who criticized the Turkish leader’s human-rights record. “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country,” he said. Then in 2017, he ignored aides who told him not to congratulate Erdogan after a referendum gave him sweeping, antidemocratic powers. The relationship soured this year after Erdogan ignored Trump’s entreaties to release Andrew Brunson, an evangelical American minister imprisoned in Turkey for espionage.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

The Chinese president was a target of Trump’s barbs during the campaign. Then, when Trump became president and met Xi, the barbs turned into praise and frequent talk of the Chinese president as a friend. Even as Trump declared a trade war against China, he has praised Xi as “China’s great president,” boasted of their “great relationship,” and said Xi has “done more for us than he’s done for any president or administration.” When Xi took steps to become president for life, Trump voiced envy. “I think it’s great,” he said. “Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Almost as soon as he took office, Trump reversed U.S. policy toward el-Sisi’s regime, all but dropping talk of human-rights abuses. Welcoming him to the White House in 2017, Trump noted that the Egyptian had met Hillary Clinton earlier. “Hopefully, you liked me a lot more,” he said. He described el-Sisi as “somebody that’s been very close to me from the first time I met him” and praised him for doing “a fantastic job” in Egypt.

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