Fox News' Bill O'Reilly asked President Donald Trump in a Super Bowl pre-game interview whether he "respected" Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump said he did, but also hedged, saying that respect wouldn't necessarily translate to "getting along." O'Reilly pressed him on the respect point, calling Putin a "killer."
"There are a lot of killers," Trump responded in typical Trump fashion. "We've got a lot of killers. What do you think, our country's so innocent?" Trump was accused of "moral relativism," even though his comments didn't amount to much—O'Reilly was baiting him into saying something bellicose about Russia or Putin, and Trump declined to.
O'Reilly's killer comment came after Trump told him he respected "a lot of people" but that it didn't mean they would get a long. "He's a leader of his country, I say it's better to get along with Russia than not," Trump said, pointing to potential cooperation on ISIS. "Will I get along with him? I have no idea."
Despite the myths advanced by commentators like O'Reilly, the U.S. has never had a policy of conducting its foreign affairs based on who was and wasn't a killer. Former President Obama's attempts to acknowledge some of America's failures in supporting murderous regimes was characterized by the same set as an "apology tour." Obama, of course, wasn't blameless either. Despite his lofty rhetoric and Nobel Peace Prize, he nurtured new U.S. relations with murderous regimes, like that of Uganda, and old ones, like the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which executes people for things like adultery, atheism, homosexuality, and even witchcraft.
The core of Trump's message—that the U.S. is not innocent and so shouldn't conduct its foreign affairs as if it were—is a solid one, even if the vessel is deeply flawed. On Twitter, Jeremy Scahill said the takeaway from Trump was "not that he is wrong about US engaging in mass killing. It is that he likes it and views it as acceptable, preferable." Trump's comments, in the clips made available, were not specifically about mass killings—O'Reilly did not explain which killings for which Putin was responsible he was referring to, although later on in the exchange, after O'Reilly told Trump he didn't know of any government leaders in the U.S. who were killers, Trump brought up the "mistake" of the war in Iraq. "Mistakes are different," O'Reilly replied. Trump retorted: "OK, but a lot of people were killed, so, a lot of killer around, believe me."
Trump may know this well—Elliot Abrams, who The Nation described as an "American war criminal," is reportedly being considered for the number two spot at State. Among other unsavory points, his long CV of U.S. government service includes advocating for funding for the murderous regime in Guatemala during the Reagan administration.
The idea that Trump views the kind of conduct that makes the U.S. less than innocent as acceptable is not far off—during the campaign, Trump spoke approvingly of taking actions that would be considered war crimes, like killing the families of terrorists punitively. He said he believed torture worked (although said he would defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis in a welcome precedent of a president deferring to the judgement of people who know better than him instead of assuming he's the smartest person in the room).
The controversy continued on Sunday morning when Vice President Mike Pence declined to answer whether he believed the U.S. was "morally superior" to Russia, a ridiculous exercise that has the potential only for negative foreign policy outcomes. Many of America's greatest foreign policy disasters were built on foundations of moral superiority, going back more than a century at this point. After giving a diplomatic answer, CBS News' John Dickerson pressed Pence again. "Shouldn't we be able to just say yes to that question," Dickerson asked, "that America is morally superior to Russia?" Pence finally relented, offering a blanket statement for Dickerson: "I think it is without question, John, that American ideals are superior to countries all across the world."
Such discussions are not just pointless, they can be counterproductive. Whether American ideals are "superior" to others doesn't matter as much as exactly what American ideals are. Trump is at least the third consecutive president to insist that his first job is to "keep Americans safe," as opposed to keeping Americans free. For too many politicians, commentators, and voters, American ideals are whatever the U.S. government is doing. But government's actions are rarely "morally superior" to anything—they are often self-serving and highly partisan. American ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality under the law, could be morally superior. But even then, their moral superiority is far less relevant than what their actual state currently is in this country. There's little value in feeling morally superior about something you can no longer enjoy.
Watch the interview excerpt below:
The rest of the interview airs tonight and tomorrow night on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor.