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Russia and Ukraine: Bad Politics, Worse Journalism

Vladimir Putin kept the world guessing for weeks: would he lead Russia into a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, its neighbor to the southwest and a U.S. ally considered by many to become a NATO country someday?

Then on February 21 – the irony shouldn’t be lost on us that it was Presidents Day here – Putin declared Ukrainian regions Donetsk and Luhansk to be “independent” of that nation and proceeded to send in Russian troops as peacekeepers and protectors.

That’s a clever way to invade another country without saying so.

Numerous dictators and organized crime figures throughout the world use lookalikes to confuse rivals hot on their trail. That’s pretty shrewd too.

And on September 11, 2001, a bunch of jihadists were able to attack the Pentagon, obliterate our World Trade Center, and change the course of history. An impressive accomplishment.

I just described a whole bunch of acts as clever, shrewd, and impressive. But I certainly don’t approve them. In fact, I wholly condemn them. Nonetheless, great numbers of people have a difficult time separating the assessment of a particular action with the actor who undertook it. Sometimes, it’s not innocent, it’s intentional. Especially when the actor in question is named Donald Trump. For those with short memories, Pat Buchanan’s opponents made him out to be a Nazi when he called Hitler a “brilliant strategist.” Trent Lott was branded a white supremacist for saying something nice about his Senate colleague Strom Thurmond at the latter’s 100th birthday party. You get the idea.

In a recent 34-minute interview with conservative talk radio show hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton, Trump talked about a host of foreign and domestic issues, including his own record-breaking Operation Warp Speed pandemic vaccine initiative. He even predicted that recently retired legendary quarterback Tom Brady would make a comeback.

Trump uttered more than 7000 total words, yet many so-called journalists chose to focus on a singular issue: Trump’s description of Putin’s maneuver to keep the “peace” in “independent” regions as “genius,” and suggested that we do the same thing here in the United States along our Southern border.

Trump called the move smart and savvy. I don’t disagree, though there’s something wrong with a former president stating it.

As we have long known, Trump is famous for saying out loud what others might only contemplate in the privacy of their own minds. Sometimes, it takes guts to speak up; other times, it takes tact to remain silent.
Worse yet, Trump used the opportunity to slam Biden on how he’s been handling the situation. Again, Trump isn’t wrong, but Americans really need to stick together when it comes to foreign policy. As Sen. Arthur Vandenberg said long ago: “politics ends at the water’s edge.” Politicians – least of all presidents – shouldn’t criticize one another when it comes to backing rebels in South America, sending troops into Bosnia or Iraq, or withdrawing from Afghanistan. Clearly, many presidents are guilty of this, some more so than others. To their immense credit, the father and son George Bushes have been the best example of gentlemanly behavior toward their successors.

Obviously, Trump is doubling down on drilling into our brains that Biden is the wrong person for the job. Most likely, Trump is itching to announce a 2024 presidential run. Particularly because Trump feels robbed for 2020, he figure’s all’s when trying to reclaim what’s rightfully yours. But a little show of unity every now and again would go a long way.

As is often the case, the media acted most shamefully of all. Various outlets tripped over themselves trying outscoop one another as far as how to tantalize their audiences with alluring yet misleading headlines.
The New York Times was one of the early miscreants, leading with the headline: “Trump, Again Cozying up to Putin, Praises Russian Aggression as ‘Genius.’” Notice the double whammy: the implication that Trump favors aggression, and the outright declaration that Trump is “cozying up” to Putin. Those who continue to believe that politics are a cartoon, and happen to nourish themselves from the Trump-bashing comfort food trough, will see it as yet another chapter in the endless saga of Trump’s admiration for strongman dictators and his desperate attempt to be liked by them.

“Trump Praises Putin as ‘Savvy’ Amid New Escalations on Russia-Ukraine Border” wrote NPR. True enough, but they could have been original and focused on one of the other 27 or so issues Trump mentioned.

People, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and countless others parroted this narrative; Geniusgate was born.

Again, it’s not appropriate for politicians, and presidents in particular, to publicly criticize their fellow Americans regarding foreign policy, especially pertaining to a power player on the world stage whose motives are suspect. But in this case, Trump didn’t hold a press conference to address the Ukraine crisis. Rather, he gave a wide-ranging interview, and reporters did what they’ve been trained to do: siphon the most provocative comments from the entire content. But, hey, it’s all about how many clicks a headline receives; that’s what we mean by the canons of journalism, right?
Finally, I’ll throw out a rare nod to Mitt Romney. Sure, he’s a feckless, soul-selling chameleon who was played like a fiddle by Trump, and would still come back for more if he thought there was something in it for him. But when Barack Obama mocked him in their 2012 presidential debate about thinking Russia remained an adversary to be taken seriously, it was that election’s loser who turned out to be correct.

The same folks who ridiculed Romney back then for worrying about Putin conveniently deemed Putin a dangerous enemy when the opportunity presented itself to link him to Trump. How’s that working out for them now?

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