Donald Trump doubled down on Vladimir Putin in an interview with Fox Business News as he reacted to a British court public inquiry into the 2014 poisoning death of Russian defector and British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko. The British inquiry found that two Russian agents (Lugovoi and Kovtun) were guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, that they were, beyond a reasonable doubt, acting on the behalf of others. The court’s conclusion with respect to state murder was that there was a “strong probability [the murderers] did so under the direction of the FSB [Federal Security Service]” and that “the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev [head of the FSB] and also by President Putin.” According to the judge’s announced guidelines, the state murder of Litvinenko as approved by Patrushev and Putin was proved according to the civil standard of preponderance of probabilities.
Trump told Fox Business News in defense of Putin that: "They say a lot of things about me that are untrue too… First of all, he [Putin] says he didn't do it. Many people say it wasn't him. So who knows who did it? Have they found him guilty? I don't think they've found him guilty. If he did it, fine but I don't know that he did it… But in all fairness to Putin - and I'm not saying this because he says 'Trump is brilliant and leading everybody' - the fact is that he hasn't been convicted of anything.”
Trump is correct in stating that Putin has not been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but he might have added that Putin’s guilt is impossible to prove given his control of Russia’s legal system. Trump might also have noted the evidence in support of state murder: that the two Russian suspects were acting on behalf of others, with a “strong probability” on behalf of Russia’s FSB, that scientific evidence points to manufacture of the polonium 210 at the Avangard/Mayak Russian nuclear facility, that Lugovoi has been granted immunity (and awards) as a new deputy in the Duma as a member of Putin’s party, and that Russia rejected British requests to extradite the two suspects or make them available for remote testimony.
Trump praised Putin for being “a leader.” If the Litvinenko murder was state-sponsored, as the British court concludes, but not approved by Putin, would this be, in Trump’s world, the mark of a strong leader? If the murder of a foreign citizen on foreign soil was committed without his approval, would an innocent leader grant them immunity, tolerate the hiding of evidence, and protect the murderers from extradition?
Trump’s second defense of Putin borders on the ridiculous. Of course, Putin says he did not do it and indeed “many people say it was not him.” But who are these “many people?” Does Trump not know that Putin controls the world’s most effective propaganda machine of professional “information technologists,” a troll army, and paid ‘Putin Versteher” (“Understanders”) in the West? The same sources who say “Putin did not do it” are currently declaring that the U.S. is intent on dismembering Russia, that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, and that a mysterious Ukraine fighter plane shot down MH17 to blame the innocent Russians.
As a potential future U.S. president, Trump is right to resist a rush to judgement. After all, it would be difficult to deal with a leader he had accused of murder. But Trump should be advised to refrain from ill-informed statements like “many say he didn’t do it.” I hope that Trump understands that Putin’s guilt or innocence can never be the subject of a legitimate legal proceeding, unless there are dramatic changes in Russia.