President Donald Trump is known for taking dictators at their word while undermining the expertise of his own intelligence officials.
Who he listens to ― and whose wisdom he rejects ― offers an important glimpse into how the president approaches major world affairs. Trump has, in a relatively short amount of time, managed to alienate many of the United States’ traditional world allies while aligning himself with leaders whose governing tactics fly in the face of democratic values.
Putin vs. Intelligence Officials
Trump has largely taken Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word that Moscow did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election, despite contrary findings of U.S. intelligence agencies. The president has also gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details about his interactions with Putin.
Putin told an Austrian news outlet last summer that he and Trump “regularly talk over the phone.”
The disarmingly simple truth behind Trump’s relationship with Putin is that he seems to admire the Russian leader, who has been in office either as president or prime minister for nearly 20 years and who is known for suppressing civil rights and making political opponents disappear.
“He is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a terrible thing’—the man has very strong control over a country,” Trump told NBC in 2016. “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 has been a leader.”
Mohammed bin Salman vs. The CIA
When journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, all signs pointed to foul play on the part of the Saudi royal family. Turkish intelligence ― backed by accounts from Khashoggi’s fiance, fellow journalists at The Washington Post where he was columnist, and the CIA ― determined Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.
Trump, however, appeared initially eager to accept the kingdom’s denials and suggested “rogue killers” might be responsible.
As more evidence of the kingdom’s involvement emerged, Trump evaluated the incident as “one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups.”
Instead of rebuking the crown prince, Trump doubled down on his allegiance to the kingdom.
“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Trump said in a November statement. “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”
Trump even called into question the CIA’s determination that MBS ordered the journalist’s killing.
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” the president said.
Kim Jong Un vs. The parents of Otto Warmbier
The accommodations Trump has made for Kim Jong Un are, if not worse than those he’s made for other authoritarian leaders, definitely some of the most unprecedented.
Trump is the first sitting U.S. president to have met with a North Korean leader. He met with Kim last June and again this week, failing to reach a clear agreement on nuclear disarmament but walking away both times with an apparently positive impression of the notorious leader.
“He is the head of a country, and I mean he is the strong head,” Trump told Fox News after the 2018 meeting. “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Trump said of Kim: “I trust him. I take him at his word.”
Trump even took Kim at his word regarding the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned in North Korea and died after being returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state in 2017. (North Korean authorities accused Warmbier of stealing a poster from a hotel room while he was visiting the isolated country in 2016 and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. He was returned to the U.S. after 17 months in captivity.)
Trump trusted Kim even despite Warmbier’s own parents suing Kim’s government under a federal anti-terrorism law, accusing North Korea of holding their son hostage to pressure the U.S. to end sanctions and allow Kim’s regime to continue its “weapons proliferation.”
A U.S. coroner’s report determined the 22-year-old endured brain-damaging oxygen deprivation through “an unknown insult more than a year prior to death.”
The president claimed Kim “felt very badly” about Warmbier’s death.
“Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places and bad things happened. But I don’t believe he knew about it,” Trump said. “He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”