Donald Trump chose a rally in Georgia on Saturday night once again to praise Vladimir Putin, calling the Russian president “smart” even as he said the invasion of Ukraine amounted to a “big mistake”.
The Republican former president also had warm words for China’s president Xi Jinping and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and referred to such leaders collectively by saying: “The smartest one gets to the top.”
He spoke admiringly of Xi in terms of the fact that he “runs 1.5 billion people with an iron fist” and referred to Kim as “tough”.
Then of Putin, Trump told the crowd: “They asked me if Putin is smart. Yes, Putin was smart.”
He also praised Russia’s strategy of a huge accumulation of military force on its border with Ukraine prior to invading, even if the war is not going well for the aggressor.
“That’s a hell of a way to negotiate, put 200,000 troops on the border…That was a big mistake, but it looked like a great negotiation. That didn’t work out too well for him,” Trump said.
Trump was in Georgia as primary races heat up before the midterm elections in November, as part of his continuing effort to bend national Republican candidates to his will and the party to do his bidding.
Trump’s presence in the state came 18 months after he pressured Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory, a conversation that is now the subject of a grand jury investigation in Atlanta.
The loss, which made Trump the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the state in 28 years, continues to rankle the former president, and he has endorsed the state congressman Jody Hice in his challenge to Raffensperger. He also backed other candidates in the state against establishment Republicans, including David Perdue against the sitting governor, Brian Kemp.
It follows a similar pattern in other states where Trump has held or plans to hold rallies as a way of showing support for Republican candidates who have offered him their fealty.
Saturday’s rally in Commerce, 70 miles north-east of Atlanta and one of the most conservative parts of the state, is featured Herschel Walker, a former football player running for the US Senate; Perdue; and the congressional candidate Vernon Jones, a former Democratic state representative who began calling himself the “Black Donald Trump” after switching parties.
But Trump is playing a high-stakes game and his candidates’ success in Georgia’s May primaries is far from guaranteed.
Walker is slightly ahead of the Democratic senator Raphael Warnock in RealClearPolitics polling averages, but Jones, who dropped a bid for the governorship in February, faces a crowded Republican field for the conservative 10th congressional district, which covers part of east Georgia.
Trump’s pick for governor, Perdue, faces an even more complex struggle. He has struggled to raise campaign money and trails incumbent Brian Kemp by 11 points, according to a Fox News poll.
Perdue has toed Trump’s false line of a “stolen” 2020 election and begun claiming that his defeat to the Democratic senator Jon Ossoff, to whom he conceded in January, was also problematic. “Most people in Georgia know that something untoward happened in November 2020,” he told the talk radio host Bryan Pritchard. “I’ll just say it, Bryan. In my election and the president’s election, they were stolen. The evidence is compelling now.”
The Perdue-Kemp contest represents a personal grudge for Trump, which flared after Kemp after refused to support his bid overturn Georgia’s 2020 election result.