The Authoritarians Trump Loves ... and Envies

Viktor Orbán is the latest addition to a rogue's gallery of dictators who have found the president's embrace.

President Trump welcoming Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the White House on Monday
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
May 15, 2019, 8 p.m.

This has been a banner week for President Trump and the authoritarians he loves. On Monday, he brushed aside the policies of his two most recent predecessors as he welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the White House. He also announced he would meet soon with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Then on Wednesday, he downplayed what his administration considers China’s duplicity on trade talks, tweeting that “my respect and friendship with President Xi is unlimited.”

Republican strategist Rick Wilson, a frequent Trump critic, wrote about the Orbán visit in a Daily Beast story on Monday headlined “Viktor Orbán is the Authoritarian Creep Trump Wishes He Could Be.” Conservative Fox News host and vocal Trump supporter Laura Ingraham cried foul on Wednesday about his embrace of Xi. “'Unlimited respect’ for a president who locks up a million plus dissidents, Muslims and Christians in internment camps?” she tweeted, adding, “Why?”

The answer to her question has been pretty clear ever since Trump descended that escalator to announce his candidacy. He really likes—and envies—authoritarian leaders.

Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama objected to Orbán’s anti-democratic moves. Trump in his meetings with Orbán has promoted neither democracy nor human rights. In the Oval Office, he told Orbán, “You’re respected all over Europe—probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.”

Here is a rogues’ gallery of Trump’s favorite international dictators, authoritarians, and tough guys:

Viktor Orbán, prime minister, Hungary

Trump likes that Orbán wants an “alternative to liberal democracy” and fights migrants, an independent news media, and universities. The White House has not addressed Orbán’s championing of white nationalism and flirtations with anti-Semitism.

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader, North Korea

Even after some provocative missile tests and even after the collapse of their second summit, Trump won’t quit on the brutal North Korean dictator he “fell in love” with and who sends him “beautiful letters.” His last tweet about Kim came on May 4 when he said Kim “knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!” Last year, he explained his crush, telling Fox News, “He is the head of a country, and I mean he is the strong head. ... He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” Trump even has praised how Kim killed his enemies, saying admiringly, “I mean, this guy doesn’t play games.”

Mohammad bin Salman, crown prince, Saudi Arabia

Even after U.S. intelligence agencies linked the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the crown prince, Trump wouldn’t step away from the relationship. He told the Post that bin Salman is “a person who can keep things under check” and “a strong person.” He chose to emphasize U.S. arms deals and the relationship with Saudi Arabia over accountability for Khashoggi’s murder.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president, Turkey

According to CBS News, Erdoğan was the only allied leader spared from Trump’s criticism at the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels. Trump noted that other leaders had to go through their legislatures to get more defense spending. He then turned to Erdoğan, who has been stifling democracy and assuming more power in Turkey, and said, “Except for Erdoğan over here. He does things the right way.” He then fist-pumped Erdoğan.

Vladimir Putin, president, Russia

Trump’s admiration for Putin goes back to the campaign, when he compared him favorably to Obama. “The man has very strong control over a country. Now, it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president.”

Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, president, Egypt

Reuters described el-Sisi as presiding over “the worst repression in Egypt’s modern history.” But Trump has nothing but praise for the dictator, calling him “my friend” and saying the former general is “doing a great job” and is “a great president.”

Rodrigo Duterte, president, Philippines

In private, Trump and Duterte have talked about their mutual disdain for Obama. In public, Trump has nothing but praise for Duterte’s extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers and crackdown on the free press. He called Duterte “fantastic” and laughed when Duterte called reporters “spies.” According to Duterte’s office, Trump never brought up human rights.

Xi Jinping, president, China

Trump has talked about Xi as a role model after he changed the rules in 2018 so he could serve as president indefinitely. "He’s now president for life,” Trump said at the time. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”

Andrzej Duda, president, Poland

Trump has cheered Duda on as he cracked down on an independent judiciary and repressed what he called “fake news.” Invited to the White House, a beaming Duda repaid the praise by suggesting that a new U.S. military base in Poland should be named “Fort Trump.”

Najib Razak, former prime minister, Malaysia

Relations between Washington and Kuala Lumpur had soured because of Najib’s repression of the press and a U.S. Justice Department investigation of his possible embezzlement of $3 billion in aid funds. But Trump still invited him to the White House, which led Najib and his entire delegation to spend handsomely at the nearby Trump International Hotel.

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