Illustration by Sam’s Myth; Photographs by Drew Angerer/Getty Images, East News/Liaison, via Getty Images, Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images and Dmitry Serebryakov\TASS via Getty Images
WASHINGTON — On June 18, 2001, I attended Vladimir V. Putin’s first meeting with the American news media. We were seated at a large round table in the wood-paneled Kremlin Library. It was still early in Mr. Putin’s presidency, and we weren’t sure what to expect of this ex-K.G.B. spy fresh off the famous summit meeting where President George W. Bush had gotten “a sense of his soul” and pronounced him “trustworthy.” After we were kept waiting for what felt like hours, Mr. Putin finally arrived a little after 8 p.m., sat down and took questions until nearly midnight.
When it was my turn, I asked about the brutal war against separatists in the southern province of Chechnya. His long answer makes for striking reading all these years later: It combined media-bashing (we were failing to sufficiently cover atrocities committed by the separatists, he said); anti-Islamic sentiment (“What do you suggest we should do? Talk with them about biblical values?”); and the insistence that he had to attack in Chechnya to keep the rest of Russia safe. As the night went on, he proposed American-Russian operations against the real threat in the world, Islamic terrorists, and proclaimed his patriotic plan to restore the country after the economic reverses of the previous decade.
Sound familiar? Mr. Putin’s slogan back in 2001 might as well have been Make Russia Great Again.
We are four weeks into Donald J. Trump’s presidency, and Mr. Putin, in power 17 years and not going anywhere anytime soon, is everywhere in American politics. A shirtless Mr. Putin is a regular figure of parody on “Saturday Night Live,” portrayed as a character witness (or is that handler?) for the president of the United States. His hackers’ meddling haunted the American general election. A leaked dossier purporting to contain possible Russian blackmail material on Mr. Trump dominated headlines for weeks.
And last week, Russian entanglements resulted in the quick dumping of the national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn (although Mr. Flynn was ultimately cut loose not for his apparent discussion with the Russian ambassador about lifting American sanctions, but for lying about it to the vice president). A day later, news emerged that associates of Mr. Trump had been in contact with Russian intelligence in the year before the election.
Mr. Trump has made clear for months that he doesn’t just admire the Russian president’s macho persona but considers him, as he said during the campaign, more of a “leader” than President Barack Obama. As recently as this month, in a pre-Super Bowl interview on Fox, Mr. Trump refused to condemn Mr. Putin’s repressive government. No surprise then that Mr. Trump’s unseemly embrace of the Russian tough guy has given rise to a million conspiracy theories.
But we no longer have to speculate about conspiracies or engage in armchair psychoanalysis. Since the inauguration, we have accumulated some hard facts, too: Both Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and actions as president bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Mr. Putin during his first years consolidating power. Having spent those years in Moscow as a foreign correspondent — and the rest of my career as a journalist in Washington in four previous presidencies — I can tell you the similarities are striking enough that they should not be easily dismissed.
Of course, in personality these two are very different: Mr. Trump is impulsive where Mr. Putin is controlled, with temper tantrums and public rants contrasting with the Russian’s cold calculation and memorized briefing books. But their oddly similar political views and approach to running their (very different) countries may turn out to be just as important as the Russia-related scandals now erupting around Mr. Trump. You don’t have to think he is some kind of agent of Russia to worry about the course he’s taking us down.