Trump says Navalny was ‘brave,’ but should not have returned to Russia

By Thomson Reuters Feb 20, 2024 | 7:09 PM

By Gram Slattery

GREENVILLE, South Carolina (Reuters) – Former U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that Alexei Navalny was “a very brave man” who “probably” should not have returned to Russia, without assigning any blame for the Russian opposition leader’s unexpected death.

Democratic President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for Navalny’s death, as has Nikki Haley, who trails far behind Trump as his sole remaining rival for the Republican presidential nomination.

“Navalny is a very sad situation, and he is a very brave, he was a very brave guy because he went back. He could have stayed away,” Trump said during a town hall interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham in South Carolina.

“And, frankly, probably would have been a lot better off staying away and talking from outside of the country as opposed to having to go back in, because people thought that could happen and it did happen. And it’s a horrible thing,” he said.

The Kremlin has denied involvement in Navalny’s death and said that Western claims that Putin was responsible are unacceptable.

Trump – who has expressed admiration for Putin during his 2017-2021 White House tenure and afterward – also continued to compare himself to Navalny, implying that both men had faced unjust prosecutions due to their political beliefs.

“But it’s happening in our country too,” he said. “We are turning into a communist country in many ways. And if you look at it – I’m the leading candidate. I get indicted.”

On Sunday, Trump wrote in a Truth Social post that Navalny’s death in an Arctic penal colony last week had made him “more aware of what is happening” in the United States. Trump did not elaborate, but he has frequently described the 91 criminal charges against him as politically motivated, a claim prosecutors deny.

During the interview on Tuesday, which was conducted before a live audience in Greenville four days before the state’s primary contest, Trump continued to blast migrants, portraying them as a threat to public safety without offering any evidence to support his claims that they are more violent than native-born Americans.

At several moments, 77-year-old Trump’s answers to questions veered into tangential topics.

While being asked about electric vehicles and Americans’ “freedom of movement,” Trump spoke about the usefulness of tariffs and described his interactions with an unnamed American dishwasher company during his time in office.

Trump praised South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who joined Trump on stage for the final part of the interview. The former president has privately asked associates about naming Scott, a one-time rival in the Republican nomination battle, as his running mate, sources familiar with the matter have previously said.

Tying himself to Scott may have short-term electoral benefits for the former president in South Carolina, where voters go to the polls on Saturday to choose who they want as the Republican nominee to take on Biden in the Nov. 5 election.

Trump is leading Haley by more than 30 percentage points in South Carolina according to most polls, and his team is eager to deliver a crushing blow. However, Haley has said there is no way she will drop out and that she plans to keep campaigning into March.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery, editing by Deepa Babington)