Russian President Vladimir Putin received swift condemnation from both sides of the aisle in the United States after launching a full-scale invasion against Ukraine, the fledgling democratic nation that broke from the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
In remarks following the invasion, President Joe Biden warned that Putin would be a "pariah on the international stage" and that democracy, liberty, and human dignity are too strong to be "extinguished by tyrants like Putin and his armies." Former President Barack Obama said Putin had launched an attack on the "basic principles of human decency." Former President George W. Bush accused Putin of "authoritarian bullying," calling the attack "unprovoked and unjustified." Former President Bill Clinton said Putin had "unraveled 30 years of diplomacy," while former President Jimmy Carter called the attack an "unjust assault" on the rights of Ukrainians.
Former President Donald Trump, however, made a much different evaluation than Biden and every living former President, saying in remarks to conservative radio host Buck Sexton that Putin's strategy was "genius." As the invasion unfolded, Trump told a crowd of supporters at Mar-a-Lago that Putin was "smart" to invade a country for "two dollars' worth of sanctions."
During his tenure in the White House, Trump repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders, but to praise one launching a deadly invasion against a U.S. ally struck a new low.
Trump's former Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, said he felt "disbelief" at the former President's comments, telling CNN's Jake Tapper:
“[Putin's] a murderer. He has attacked an innocent country whose only crime is that they want to be free and democratic, and they’re working in that direction and have been working in that direction. ... You know, is Putin smart? Yes. Tyrants are smart. They know what they’re doing, but that’s — I can’t imagine why someone would look at what’s happening there and see it as anything other than a criminal act. I don’t get it, Jake.”
Kelly served as Trump's chief of staff in the early years of the Trump administration, but gradually fell out of favor until the two were no longer on speaking terms. Following his firing in 2018, Kelly became one of Trump's harshest Republican critics, and even supported invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him after Trump's lies sparked a deadly failed insurrection against the U.S. Capitol last year.
Kelly, however, was alone in his "disbelief" at Trump's praise of authoritarians.
Others hadn't forgotten his years supporting Trump.