Trump’s attacks on U.S. justice system could be used by autocrats, say experts

Trump’s felony conviction

After his historic guilty verdict in his hush money case, Donald Trump attacked the U.S. criminal justice system, making unfounded claims of a “rigged” trial that echoed remarks from the Kremlin.

“If they can do this to me, they can do this to anyone,” Trump said Friday, speaking from his namesake tower in New York on Friday. Thousands of miles away, Russian President Vladimir Putin was probably “rubbing his hands with glee,” said Fiona Hill, a former senior White House national security adviser to three U.S. presidents, including Trump.

Hill and other analysts say Trump’s attacks could be useful to Putin and other autocrats as they look to boost their standing among their own citizens, potentially sway the upcoming U.S. presidential election in which Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the United States’ global influence.

Some autocratic countries reacted swiftly in support of Trump.

Moscow agreed with Trump’s assessment of Thursday’s verdict, calling it the “elimination of political rivals by all possible legal or illegal means,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. In September, Putin said the prosecution of Trump was political revenge that “shows the rottenness of the American political system.”

After the verdict, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, called Trump a “man of honor” and urged him to “keep on fighting.”

China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper suggested Trump’s conviction adds to the “farcical nature” of this year’s U.S. presidential election, adding that it will aggravate political extremism and end in “more chaos and social unrest.”

Putin is especially likely to see the latest turmoil as an opportunity, analysts say. He has long sought to widen divisions in Western societies in an attempt to advance a Russian worldview. Since the invasion of Ukraine, and ahead of crucial elections throughout the West this year, Russia has been accused of carrying out multiple attacks of sabotage and of targeting dissidents abroad to stoke anxieties and sow discord.

Moscow was accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election that Trump won by creating a troll factoryhacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign, spreading fake news and trying to influence Trump-linked officials.

“What mischief does he have to make when you have people within the American system itself denigrating it and pulling it down?” Hill said of Putin.

Political chaos can benefit autocratic leaders by distracting Washington from key issues, including the war in Ukraine. Russia’s goal is to move voices from the “fringes of the political debate to the mainstream,” said David Salvo, Managing Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C.

The Kremlin does that partly by pushing Russian points of view under the guise of news and social media posts that look like they originate in the West.

Salvo noted that disagreements in Congress that delayed an aid package to Ukraine followed a Russian social media campaign aimed at Americans. That led to Russia gaining the upper hand on the battlefield.

The attacks on the U.S. justice system from Trump and his allies are “perfect fodder” for another “major propaganda and influence operation,” Hill told The Associated Press, suggesting Russia could target swing voters in battleground states ahead of the November election.

For generations, U.S. presidential administrations have depicted America as a bastion of democracy, free speech and human rights and have encouraged other states to adopt those ideals. But Trump suggested the justice system is being used to persecute him — something that happens in some autocratic countries.

Leaders including Putin “must love” that Trump is criticizing “the key institutions of democracy” in the way autocratic states have done for years as it legitimizes them in the eyes of their own people said Graeme Robertson, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Trump sees himself as a “strongman ruler” and looks to Putin for inspiration, Hill said. His attacks encourage any nation — from those with a mild gripe to the openly hostile — to “have their moment to bring down the colossus,” Hill said.

The message to Chinese and Russian citizens watching the drama unfold in the U.S. is that they are better off at home. The message to countries that Russia and China are courting as they attempt to expand their influence in Africa, Asia and Latin America is that Moscow and Beijing can offer more reliable partnerships.

The threat from the “new axis of authoritarians,” including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea is “daunting,” as those states work more closely together with overlapping interests said Matthew Kroenig, a former defense official and vice president at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Moscow in particular, Kroenig said, will likely try to use the political turmoil in the U.S. to divide the NATO security alliance. It could try to turn the public in NATO states against the U.S. by encouraging them to question whether they have “shared values” with Americans, he said. If successful, that could lead to a fundamental reshaping of global security architecture — a goal of Russia and China — since the end of the Cold War.

Some Western governments, meanwhile, are caught in a delicate dance between not wanting to ostracize Trump as a potential next U.S. president and the need to respect the U.S. justice system. Others, such as EU member Hungary, openly court him.

“For Putin it must be perfect because it creates a mess that he can try to seek advantage from,” Hill said.

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