Photo by Mehdi MeSSrro on Unsplash

Navalny A Hero To The Civilized World, But Not To Trump

Phil Garber
9 min readFeb 20, 2024

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Nearly every leader and former leader around the world has expressed shock, anger, grief and fear at the apparent murder in a Russian gulag of the heroic dissident Alexei Navalny.

Not all leaders have made meaningful comments. Former president Donald trump couldn’t even bring himself to mention Navalny’s name. Rather, trump is busy trying to sell 1,152,882 of his new $399, phony gold sneakers to pay $400 million in court ordered penalties.

Trump has never missed a chance to bluster about himself or about all of his enemies, but he has never been big on heroes just as he has never been one for introspection, empathy or character. He has instead gone out of his way to bad mouth real heroes who might take away from his self-idolatry.

Recall how he referred to the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who survived years in a North Vietnam prison camp. Trump never served in the military, having received several deferments because of bone spurs. Appearing at a 2015 political rally in Ames, Iowa, trump said he was no supporter of McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

“He was a war hero because he was captured,” trump said. “I like people who weren’t captured.”

As president, trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, blaming rain for the last-minute decision, saying that “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and that the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. According to reports, the real reason he didn’t want to visit was that he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead.

“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” he told staff members. In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

If trump has a hero, it’s himself. In August 2020, he tweeted a picture of himself standing in front of Mount Rushmore, an image that made him look as though he was the fifth presidential bust on the iconic monument.

He tweeted a denial that he had spoken with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem about the possibility of adding his own visage to those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Although, he said, “based on all of the many things accomplished during the first 3 1/2 years, perhaps more than any other Presidency, sounds like a good idea to me.”

Trump has been outspoken in his reverence of Russian President Putin, most recently declaring that he would not stand in the way of Russian aggression against NATO nations if NATO refuses to pay more toward supporting the historic, mutual protection pact.

Navalny, the 47-year-old fierce, uncompromising critic of Putin, died on Friday after falling unconscious while walking at the penal colony north of the Arctic Circle where he had been held since 2021. He spent his last weeks in the Siberian prison, where he said he slept under a newspaper for warmth.

Novotny was jailed in the Siberian gulag after returning to Russia in 2021 from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. On his return to Russia, Navalny was arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges that he dismissed as politically motivated.

The cause of his death is unclear and but supporters around the world say that Putin either ordered Navalny killed or that Navalny died because of the notoriously brutal conditions at the prison. Either way, it is murder. His team has accused the authorities of lying in order to delay the process of returning his body to his family.

The incident sparked protests worldwide, with many gathering outside Russian embassies in European capital cities including Berlin and Paris, waving banners reading “Putin is a killer” and “Putin to the Hague.” In Russia, more than 366 people have been detained for illegal demonstrations.

President Joe Biden called Navalny a powerful voice for the truth, and praised him for his courage in standing up to the Kremlin.

“We don’t know exactly what happened but there is no doubt that the death of Navalny was the consequence of something that Putin and his thugs did,” Biden said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the conference in Munich, Germany, that Navalny’s “death in a Russian prison and the fixation and fear of one man only underscores the weakness and rot at the heart of the system that Putin has built.”

Vice President Kamala Harris told the Munich Security Conference that Washington was working to confirm the “terrible” news.

“Whatever story they tell, let us be clear, Russia is responsible, and we will have more to say on this later,” Harris said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen both said they were “deeply saddened and concerned” with the reports of Navalny’s demise.

“Putin fears nothing more than dissent from his own people. A grim reminder of what Putin and his regime are all about. Let’s unite in our fight to safeguard the freedom and safety of those who dare to stand up against autocracy,” von der Leyen said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was “deeply saddened” by the news and that if confirmed, Navalny’s death was a “terrible” sign of how Russia had changed as a country in recent years.

Navalny “stood up for democracy and freedom in Russia — and apparently paid for his courage with his life. This terrible news shows once again how Russia has changed and what kind of regime is in power in Moscow,” Scholz said in a post on X.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said the announcement was “dreadful news,” adding that “the ruthlessness against Navalny shows again why it is necessary to continue to fight against authoritarianism.”

Trump’s foe for the GOP presidential nomination, Nikki Haley, said the nation should stand with the Russian people. She said that Navalny was “fighting corruption…And what did Putin do? He killed him, just like he does all his political opponents.”

Haley said that rather than strongly condemn Russia, trump said he would encourage Putin to invade NATO allies if they weren’t paying more toward NATO.

“That’s bone-chilling, because all he did in that one moment was empower Putin,” Haley said.

Trump is notorious for his lengthy, unintelligible tweets in response to the tiniest perceived slight. However, the ex-president did not comment directly on Navalny’s death. Instead, he made it all about trump by suggesting that he was being persecuted in the same way that Navalny was. Trump posted on his social media site, “Biden: Trump :: Putin: Navalny.” The not subtle implication was that trump has been charged with numerous crimes and persecuted by Biden in the same way that Putin has attacked Navalny.

Trump’s social media site, Truth Social, made no mention of Putin, Navalny or the Ukraine-Russia war. But the post does blame Biden for a rise in “Misery, Destruction and Death” in the world. The comment is one of more than 20 posts Trump made on other issues, including the U.S.-Mexico border, Haley, the multiple criminal investigations he faces and election poll numbers.

Trump was equally obtuse in August 2020 after Navalny survived after he was apparently poisoned by Russian security forces. Trump spoke at the time about how he had been tough against Russia but that there was no proof of Russia’s involvement in Navalny’s poisoning.

Trump’s refusal to criticize Putin for Navalny’s murder came just days after his close ally and former Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, had traveled to Russia for a gratuitous interview with Putin. Carlson left the interview apparently convinced of Russia’s “sincerity” in its rationalization for the war in Ukraine.

“Vladimir Putin believes that Russia has a historic claim to parts of western Ukraine,” Carlson said. “So, our opinion would be to view it in that light: as a sincere expression of what he thinks.”

Putin is one of many world dictators who trump has been loath to criticize and has instead praised.

While in office, trump spoke favorably of the brutal Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, who is known by the nicknames, “The Punisher” and “Duterte Harry.” More than 7,000 Filipinos were killed under Duterte’s anti-drug crusade. Duterte said he would be “happy to slaughter” the Jews massacred by Hitler and that the Pope was a “son of a whore.”

Trump spoke with the dictator on April 29, 2017, and the White House statement said It was a very friendly conversation, in which the two leaders discussed the concerns of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea. They also discussed the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world.”

Trump spoke with Putin in the aftermath of the Russian seizure of the Crimea in 2014, Russia’s aid to Syrian President Bashar Assad in his brutal crackdown on dissidents, and meddling in the U.S. elections. Referring to Putin in September 2016, trump said, “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn’t that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. … he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters….”

Trump also had relatively kind words for the Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has used extra-judicial detention, tortured detainees, shut down or imposed strict controls against groups seen as a threat including, the Uighur Muslims.

Trump said on April 28, 2016, that Xi “certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He doesn’t want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well.”

Trump also has had supportive words for Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator who leads a regime that has been found to have committed abuses “without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.

Trump said of Kim in May 2017, “At a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.”

“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it. Most political people would never say that, but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him,” trump said.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi rose to power in a bloody coup that killed 800 protesters in a single day. Public criticism of the government is squashed and anti-government protests are banned. Egypt also is one of the worst countries for journalists.

“I will tell you, President al-Sisi has been somebody that’s been very close to me from the first time I met him,” trump said. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”

As president, trump proposed creation of a National Garden of American Heroes but it was more a political stunt than an effort to truly honor the heroes. Congress never appropriated funding for the garden and no concrete steps were taken to construct it.

Trump wanted the garden to include busts of 192 men and 52 women, including Founding Fathers, activists, political figures, businesspeople, athletes, celebrities, and pop culture icons. Trump said the garden would be partly a response to the removal of to Confederate figures and others.

Historians and scholars described the garden plan as random and scattershot.

James R. Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said the proposal was an attempt by trump “to seize on a cultural conflict to distract from other issues” during an election season. Historian Karen Cox described the executive order about the proposed monument as “random” and said that “Nothing about this suggests it’s thoughtful.” Historian Michael Beschloss wrote that “No president of the United States or federal government has any business dictating to citizens who our historical heroes should be. This is not Stalin’s Russia. Any American who loves democracy should make sure there is never some official, totalitarian-sounding ‘National Garden of American Heroes,’ with names forced upon us by the federal government.”

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Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer