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No, Donald Trump is not America’s Navalny

President Biden had been in office for less than a week before he first addressed Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died in a penal colony on Friday.

A reporter from Reuters asked whether the new president would approve sanctions against Russia following Navalny’s August 2020 poisoning, apparently at the hands of Russian security agents. Biden said he “would not hesitate” to raise that and other issues with his counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He mentioned Navalny again in a February 2021 speech.

“The politically motivated jailing of Alexei Navalny and the Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” he said, “are a matter of deep concern to us and the international community.”

Asked that June what might happen if Navalny died, Biden was forceful, if vague: “The consequences of that would be devastating for Russia.”

During his four years in office, by contrast, Donald Trump appears to have never once mentioned the dissident’s name. After the Navalny poisoning, Trump was asked how he might respond. Trump riffed on how tough he had purportedly been on Russia and noted that there was no proof of Russia’s involvement. Asked whether he doubted Russian involvement, Trump said it was interesting that people kept asking him about Russia.

“I think probably China, at this point, is a nation that you should be talking about much more so than Russia,” he said, “because the things that China is doing are far worse, if you take a look at what’s happening with the world.”

Navalny called on Trump to condemn the poisoning. Trump didn’t.

Of course, this was very much in keeping with Trump’s approach to Russia. Questions about his affinity for the country and for Putin dogged Trump well before his 2016 election. And his repeated refusals as president to criticize Putin — even at one point rejecting the idea of Russian interference in the 2016 election while standing beside the Russian leader — reinforced those perceptions.

Out of office, the pattern didn’t change. He offered positive words for Putin both as the expanded invasion of Ukraine loomed in 2022 and after it unfolded. His pre-presidency shrugging at the Russia autocrat’s actions was unchanged by service as the American chief executive.

This was clearly in part a function of Trump’s (and much of his party’s) general affinity for authoritarian leadership. Trump regularly undermined and still undermines U.S. partnerships with other liberal democracies while praising autocratic leaders like Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Trump’s approach both to Putin and to Russian aggression now permeates his party and his ideological allies. This week featured a robust debate about whether the United States should increase its assistance to Ukraine’s effort to fend off Russia’s invasion; Republican leaders and right-wing voices loudly called for no new support to be offered. Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson released new videos from his trip to Russia — a trip that included an obsequious interview with Putin — depicting Carlson fawning over the amenities enjoyed by the Russian people. Carlson has been a very vocal opponent of America’s effort to aid Ukraine.

At an event this week, Carlson was asked why he didn’t challenge Putin on Navalny and the deaths of other Russia opposition figures. He offered a rhetorical shrug: “Leadership requires killing people.”

Then the news of Navalny’s death broke. Some eight years of right-wing apologism or overt support for Trump’s treatment of Putin were suddenly cast in a very bleak light.

Luckily, a number of prominent voices on the right quickly figured out an effective pivot: In this scenario, Trump isn’t Putin — he’s Navalny.

There was former New York congressman Lee Zeldin (R), replying to criticism of the Republican effort to block aid to Ukraine by suggesting that the Biden administration and Democrats were the authoritarianism-lovers.

“As the world reflects on the murder of Alexei Navalny at the hands of Putin,” he wrote on social media, “it’s worth remembering that Democrats are actively doing Biden’s bidding as they also try to imprison his chief political opponent, Donald Trump, remove him from the ballot, and ensure he dies in prison.”

Right-wing commentator Jack Posobiec echoed this idea, saying that Navalny’s death was “what Biden and the Democrats want for Trump and MAGA.” Former Trump State Department official Mike Benz had a similar suggestion about the former president.

Filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, fresh from having his election-fraud movie again exposed as nonsense, took a similar tack.

“Navalny=Trump,” he wrote. “The plan of the Biden regime and the Democrats is to ensure their leading political opponent dies in prison. There’s no real difference between the two cases.”

There are enormous differences between the cases, of course.

Navalny had been jailed repeatedly, both over the short term (for offenses like holding public demonstrations) and, as with his final detention, for long periods. He was sentenced to a 19-year term in August on charges of “extremism” centered on his political opposition to Putin’s leadership. The sentence came during a closed hearing at the penal colony. Russia’s justice system is widely viewed as beholden to the executive authority of the president, particularly in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Trump, by contrast, faces four sets of criminal charges. Two are federal and derive from indictments obtained by special counsel Jack Smith. Two are at the city or county level, one in New York and one in Fulton County, Ga.

Only the federal charges could be conceivably connected to the Biden administration, but there are protections in place to afford Smith independence in seeking criminal charges. In fact, Smith was appointed soon after Trump announced his bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination to ensure that the ongoing federal criminal investigation into Trump’s actions was afforded that independence. (Anyone concerned about the independence granted special counsels need only consider special counsel Robert K. Hur.)

What’s more, the charges against Trump derive from easily comprehensible allegations: that he retained documents marked as classified at Mar-a-Lago despite legal demands they be returned and that he worked to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Neither allegation has been proved, but each has been backstopped with enough publicly available evidence to bolster the idea that an investigation was warranted.

But we should not spend too much time treating the comparison as being offered in good faith. Suggesting that Trump is America’s Navalny is simply an attempt to assert that Trump’s indictments are solely political, an argument that has been the centerpiece of all of Trump’s rhetoric for years. It was even the centerpiece of his efforts to deflect questions about how Russia attempted to boost his candidacy back in 2016.

The reality is that Trump and many of his allies see him much more as America’s Putin, the strong hand that is needed to fend off hazily defined opponents. It’s why, as president, Trump didn’t address Navalny or challenge Putin, unlike Biden. It’s why, back in 2015, Trump even defended Putin’s targeting of journalists with a Carlson-esque “our country does plenty of killing, too.”

In September, Trump embraced another person’s effort to equate his indictments with political persecution.

That person was Vladimir Putin.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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