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Former advisers sound the alarm that Trump praises despots in private and on the campaign trail

To Donald Trump, Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán is “fantastic,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping is “brilliant,” North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is “an OK guy,” and, most alarmingly, he allegedly said Adolf Hitler “did some good things,” a worldview that would reverse decades-old US foreign policy in a second term should he win November’s presidential election, multiple former senior advisers told CNN.

“He thought Putin was an OK guy and Kim was an OK guy — that we had pushed North Korea into a corner,” retired Gen. John Kelly, who served as Trump’s chief of staff, told me. “To him, it was like we were goading these guys. ‘If we didn’t have NATO, then Putin wouldn’t be doing these things.’”

Trump’s lavish praise for Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán while hosting him at Mar-a-Lago on Friday, just days after all but sealing the Republican nomination on Super Tuesday, shows it’s a worldview he’s doubling down on.

"The Return of Great Powers" by CNN's Jim Sciutto. - From Penguin Random House
"The Return of Great Powers" by CNN's Jim Sciutto. - From Penguin Random House

“There’s nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orbán,” Trump said, adding, “He’s the boss and he’s a great leader, fantastic leader. In Europe and around the world, they respect him.”

The former president’s admiration for autocrats has been reported on before, but in comments by Trump recounted to me for my new book, “The Return of Great Powers,” out Tuesday, Kelly and others who served under Trump give new insight into why they warn that a man who consistently praises autocratic leaders opposed to US interests is ill-suited to lead the country in the Great Power clashes that could be coming, telling me they believe that the root of his admiration for these figures is that he envies their power.

“He views himself as a big guy,” John Bolton, who served as national security adviser under Trump, told me. “He likes dealing with other big guys, and big guys like Erdogan in Turkey get to put people in jail and you don’t have to ask anybody’s permission. He kind of likes that.”

“He’s not a tough guy by any means, but in fact quite the opposite,” Kelly said. “But that’s how he envisions himself.”

Alleged praise for Hitler

Trump allegedly reserved some of his most unnerving praise for Hitler, who led Nazi Germany during World War II.

“He said, ‘Well, but Hitler did some good things.’ I said, ‘Well, what?’ And he said, ‘Well, [Hitler] rebuilt the economy.’ But what did he do with that rebuilt economy? He turned it against his own people and against the world. And I said, ‘Sir, you can never say anything good about the guy. Nothing,’” Kelly recounted. “I mean, Mussolini was a great guy in comparison.”

“It’s pretty hard to believe he missed the Holocaust, though, and pretty hard to understand how he missed the 400,000 American GIs that were killed in the European theater,” Kelly told me. “But I think it’s more, again, the tough guy thing.”

Trump’s admiration for Hitler went further than the German leader’s economic policies, according to Kelly. Trump also expressed admiration for Hitler’s hold on senior Nazi officers. Trump lamented that Hitler, as Kelly recounted, maintained his senior staff’s “loyalty,” while Trump himself often did not.

“He would ask about the loyalty issues and about how, when I pointed out to him the German generals as a group were not loyal to him, and in fact tried to assassinate him a few times, and he didn’t know that,” Kelly recalled. “He truly believed, when he brought us generals in, that we would be loyal — that we would do anything he wanted us to do,” Kelly told me.

When asked to respond to the allegations from the former Trump administration officials, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung did not comment on the substance of what they told me but stated, “John Kelly and John Bolton have completely beclowned themselves and are suffering from a severe case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. They need to seek professional help because their hatred is consuming their empty lives.”

In 2021, a spokeswoman for Trump denied allegations that the former president had praised Hitler.

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates responded to Trump’s alleged praise for Hitler in a statement on Tuesday, saying that Biden has called the Nazi leader a “demonic figure.”

“No American should ever praise the genocidal monster who committed the Holocaust. Just like it is incumbent on all leaders not to associate with Neo Nazis and Holocaust deniers. Hundreds of thousands of American service members – heroes, not ‘suckers’ or ‘losers’ – gave their lives to defeat that evil. Admiring Hitler is an insult to their memory. President Biden is committed to bringing all Americans together based on our shared values,” Bates said.

‘Shocked that he didn’t have dictatorial-type powers’

Trump’s former advisers say he most consistently lavished praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bolton recalled a comment from Trump during the 2018 NATO summit. Following sometimes tense encounters with NATO leaders, Trump said his meeting with Putin, the leader of America’s great power adversary, “may be the easiest of them all. Who would think?”

“He says to the press as he goes out to the helicopter, ‘I think the easiest meeting might be with Vladimir Putin. Who would ever think that?’” recalled Bolton. “There’s an answer to that question. Only one person. You. You are the only person who would think that. The shrinks can make of that what they will, but I think it was ‘I’m a big guy. They’re big guys. I wish I could act like they do.’”

“My theory on why he likes the dictators so much is that’s who he is,” Kelly said. “Every incoming president is shocked that they actually have so little power without going to the Congress, which is a good thing. It’s Civics 101, separation of powers, three equal branches of government. But in his case, he was shocked that he didn’t have dictatorial-type powers to send US forces places or to move money around within the budget. And he looked at Putin and Xi and that nutcase in North Korea as people who were like him in terms of being a tough guy.”

Then-President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pose at a military demarcation line separating the two Koreas in Panmunjom, South Korea, on June 30, 2019. - KCNA/Reuters
Then-President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pose at a military demarcation line separating the two Koreas in Panmunjom, South Korea, on June 30, 2019. - KCNA/Reuters

“Trump believed in the power of his personal charisma and diplomacy,” recalled Matthew Pottinger, his deputy national security adviser, who was deeply involved in Trump’s meetings with North Korean leader Kim and Chinese President Xi. “He had almost unlimited faith in it. That was as true with Kim as it was with Xi — but also with allies too.”

Trump has continued to praise authoritarians in his 2024 presidential campaign.

At a town hall organized by Fox News in July 2023, Trump said, “Think of President Xi: central casting, brilliant guy. When I say he’s brilliant, everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’ He runs 1.4 billion people with an iron fist: smart, brilliant, everything perfect. There is nobody in Hollywood like this guy.”

In an interview with Fox that same month, Trump lavished praise on Putin as well, describing him as smarter than President Joe Biden. “These are smart people, including Macron of France. I could go through the whole list of people, including Putin .… These people are sharp, tough, and generally vicious,” Trump said. “They’re vicious, and they’re at the top of their game. We have a man that has no clue what’s happening. It’s the most dangerous time in the history of our country.”

Then-President Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. - Anadolu/Anadolu/Getty Images
Then-President Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. - Anadolu/Anadolu/Getty Images

Trump’s affinity for authoritarians represents a defining issue for the US as the 2024 election approaches. Several of his own former advisers believe, in a second term, he would bring a fundamental shift in the US’ vision of itself and its role in the world, including potentially pulling the US out of NATO and reducing the US’ commitment to other defense alliances.

“NATO would be in real jeopardy,” Bolton told me. “I think he would try to get out.”

Many veterans of the Trump administration have a similar warning for Ukraine as it battles Russia’s invasion. “US support for Ukraine would end,” said a senior US official who served under Trump and Biden.

“The point is, he saw absolutely no point in NATO,” Kelly said. “He was just dead set against having troops in South Korea, again, a deterrent force, or having troops in Japan, a deterrent force.”

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