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.
The media-bashing and outrageous statements. The attacks on rival power centers, whether stubborn federal judges or corporations refusing to get in line. The warnings, some of them downright panic-inducing, that the country is not safe — and we must go to war with Islamic extremists because they are threatening our way of life. These are the techniques that Mr. Putin used to great effect in his first years in power, and they are very much the same tactics and clash-of-civilizations ideology being deployed by Mr. Trump today.
Early Putin was positively Trumpian, his presidency a blitz of convention-defying that conjured up the image of a leader on the march after President Boris Yeltsin’s drunken stumbles and the economic uncertainties of the late 1990s. He had the state take over the first independent national TV network, he turned the state Duma into a pocket parliament, he went after uppity oligarchs. He said things that politicians didn’t normally say, like vowing to rub out the Chechen opposition “in the outhouse” and threatening to castrate a French reporter who asked a question he didn’t like.
Despite the evidence, Kremlin watchers in the early 2000s took a long time to see Mr. Putin for the autocrat he would become. At the time, many people believed Russia, after the turmoil of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, was finally headed for a few decades of stability. Where some, correctly, saw a hard-line former K.G.B. spy determined to restore a strong state, others persisted in seeing a would-be Western-style reformer. “Who is Mr. Putin?” a foreign reporter famously asked early in his tenure.
In retrospect, the best guide to his actions should have been his statements. Mr. Putin did exactly what he said he would do. I’ve thought a lot about that over the last year, as Americans have puzzled over Mr. Trump’s surprising rise, and whether he really means all those outrageous things he says and plans to follow through with the policy shifts he promises.
Like Mr. Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan today, Mr. Putin’s version of making Russia great again wasn’t particularly ideological, but its gauzy patriotic nationalism basically summed up the Putin plan for making a weakened and demoralized superpower feel better about itself. Mr. Putin considered the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, and even if we Americans didn’t always understand what he was up to, he never deviated from his real goal: consolidating authority in the Kremlin.
This may be precisely what Mr. Trump admires the most about Mr. Putin. In a March 1990 interview with Playboy, Mr. Trump, who had been hoping to build a luxury hotel in Moscow, described his impression of the last days of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. “Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it,” the future American president said. “That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”
Mr. Putin’s hand has clearly been much tougher. Despite all the apparent reverses, confusion, corruption, lies and economic setbacks in Russia, he remains in control 17 years after his unbelievably unlikely ascent from obscure K.G.B. lieutenant colonel to president of Russia. And that, too, may be part of what Mr. Trump, another unlikely president still so insecure about his rise to the White House that he constantly brings up his election, sees in Mr. Putin and authoritarian rulers like him. He views them as tough guys who speak of strength more than freedom and often seem to judge their success by their own ability to stay in power.
I recently asked Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, why he thinks Mr. Trump has such apparent affinity for Mr. Putin. He shook his head. “I do think there is a degree of admiration for a strongman, I’m sorry,” he said. His other theory was that Mr. Trump sees himself as a sort of superhero who would forge a strong bond with Mr. Putin “to show he has the ability to do things that no other president has been able to do.”
And this is a Republican who hopes to do business with the Trump administration.
America is not burdened with the history of tyranny and totalitarianism that haunts Russia. We have a 229-year record of success with constitutional democracy that should long outlive the Trump era. And while the trappings and powers attached to the “imperial presidency” Mr. Trump now wields have been growing ever since the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. popularized that phrase during the Nixon era, we also have robust counterbalancing institutions, like a free and independent press and a federal judiciary, that are already demonstrating a deep resistance to the kind of political steamroller techniques that Mr. Putin deployed so effectively in Russia.
Still, as I report from Washington now, it’s hard not to worry. When I moved to Moscow the year Mr. Putin became president, it was only a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Many Russians still hoped their country would become more like the Western countries they had so recently been barred from even visiting. For all the popularity of Mr. Putin’s battle against what he belittled as the chaotic freedoms of the 1990s, I met many people in Russia who yearned for the time when they would take their place at the table of “normal,” stable democracies.
Who would have thought that, 17 years later, the question is not about Russia’s no-longer-existing democracy, but America’s?