This week, asked by ABC News if he considered Vladimir Putin a “killer,” President Biden responded in the affirmative. Putin responded by challenging Biden to a debate this weekend. At this point, Donald Trump’s allies immediately weighed in on Putin’s side.
Putin “is openly mocking the president of the United States for his own amusement,” Fox News host Sean Hannity proclaimed last night, “and frankly, I find it, as an American citizen, humiliating.” Donald Trump Jr. taunted Biden for lacking the guts to take him up on it:
Obviously, the primary reason Biden spurned this challenge is that world leaders do not customarily drop everything and fly somewhere to hold televised debates with each other. But Hannity and Donald Jr. instead decided to endorse Putin’s preferred interpretation that Biden only refused his manly challenge out of the cowardly realization he is too feeble-minded to debate Putin, the Ben Shapiro of dictators.
The idea that Hannity and Junior are repeating “Russian propaganda” is a little overblown. Their claim Biden is “senile” was not invented in Moscow. It’s an exaggerated partisan attack line that flows predictably from the obvious fact that Biden is old and speaks haltingly. It’s less accurate to say Republicans are repeating Putin’s propaganda than to say Putin is repeating Republican propaganda.
What’s more significant is the context of Putin’s taunt. Biden’s response was a reference to Trump’s repeated refusal to acknowledge that Putin murders his political opposition in a way American presidents don’t. In 2015, he batted away Joe Scarborough’s accusation against Putin by responding, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing too, Joe.” In 2017, when Bill O’Reilly tried the same argument, he shot back, “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
This is a point of tremendous importance to Putin. The Russian strongman wishes desperately to be seen as a peer to American presidents, and if he can’t accomplish this by raising his own stature to their level, he is just as happy to lower their stature to his own.
Of all the favors Trump gave Putin, the most important may have been his refusal to treat Putin’s regime as categorically different from the United States government. Trump consistently declined to acknowledge Putin’s grossest human-rights violations. When other Western leaders denounced Putin for poisoning his primary dissident, Trump evaded the question and never even conceded Putin did it.
Putin’s view is that he and Biden lead governments that operate along the same basic principles, and the difference between them is simply that he is stronger. That is also Donald Trump’s view. Biden’s clear break with Trump’s line is offensive to Moscow and Mar-a-Lago in equal measure.
So Trump’s lackeys are taunting Biden for his refusal to take up Putin’s debate challenge. But why didn’t Putin ever challenge Trump to a debate? The answer is that they had nothing to argue about.