Trump doubles down on comparing legal troubles to persecution of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks with moderator Laura Ingraham during a Fox News Channel town Hall held in Greenville, S.C. on Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) -- Sitting down for a town hall-style interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham just days ahead of the South Carolina Republican primary, former President Donald Trump on Tuesday did not back down from his comments comparing himself to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the wake of Navalny's death, which the White House has blamed on Russia's authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin.

After calling Navalny a "brave" person, Trump again compared himself to Navalny, attempting to argue his various legal battles and criminal charges, which he denies, are "a form of" what was experienced by the dissident activist and politician -- who was imprisoned at the end of his life in notorious conditions.

“It's a form of Navalny. It's a form of communism or fascism," Trump insisted when asked about more than $350 million in penalties he's been fined by Judge Arthur Engoron after a lengthy New York civil trial in which Engoron castigated Trump for frauds that "shock the conscience." Trump has promised to appeal.

The former president had been criticized by his primary rival Nikki Haley for not initially reacting to Navalny's death last week. He said on Tuesday that "Navalny is a very sad situation, and he's very brave -- he was a very brave guy because he went back."

"He could have stayed away, 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," Trump said, referring to Navalny returning to Russia after German officials said he had been poisoned in 2020. (The Kremlin denies being involved.)

"And it's a horrible thing," Trump continued on Fox News, before quickly comparing his own legal battles to what Navanlny had gone through.

Ingraham pressed Trump multiple times on whether he sees himself as a potential political prisoner, but Trump repeatedly dodged the question.

"If I were losing in the polls, they wouldn't even be talking about me," Trump said the second time Ingraham asked him. 

Prosecutors have rejected that partisanship influenced them. Trump faces 91 charges; he has pleaded not guilty to all of them.

During a commercial break right after talking about Navalny, Trump said: "After that last question, I need a drink. Where the hell did this water come from? Where did this water come from?"

While attacking President Joe Biden's diplomacy, Trump again boasted about his relationship with Putin and other authoritarian foreign leaders. He has sought to contrast Biden's record with his own, maintaining that while he was in the White House, there was more peace and stability in the world.

"I know Putin very well. And I know President Xi [Jinping] of China, I know more Kim Jong Un [of North Korea], I know very well, I did a great job with him," he said.

Trump again indicates he wouldn't defend NATO countries over spending

In a section during the town hall on NATO, which wasn't aired after it was taped, Trump doubled down on his promise that he wouldn't commit to protecting member countries if they didn't "pay their dues," reiterating his long-standing criticism that some foreign allies don't contribute enough to their own defense spending relative to the U.S.

"Does this mean you're not going to defend NATO countries if they haven't paid their 2-point-whatever percent?" Ingraham asked.

"Well yeah, sort of it does," Trump said to cheers. "They said, 'I can't believe it. Nobody else ever said that.'"

Trump also again claimed that he was responsible for ensuring NATO allies started paying more into defense spending to meet a goal set in 2014 of 2% of a country's gross domestic product.

"If I said I would defend, then they wouldn't pay," Trump said. "As soon as I said, 'That's right. That's exactly what it means,' the money came pouring in."

Trump's remarks on NATO have stirred notable controversy. Haley called what he said "bone-chilling" and Biden slammed it was "shocking" and "un-American."

The post-World War II treaty is widely seen as having helped deter a continent-wide conflict on Europe.

Trump claimed on Tuesday that former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama didn't do anything other than give speeches to NATO allies, leaving the United States to foot 100% of defense spending, which is false.

Trump dodged questions about how he would specifically stop the war in Ukraine, sparked by Russia's invasion. He seemingly took aim at other NATO countries for not providing more aid to Ukraine.

When Fox News asked Trump to respond to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's new suggestion that Putin might "have" something on Trump -- to use as leverage -- Trump called that "misinformation" and contended that he was tougher on Russia than any other president.

Wouldn't work with McConnell in the Senate

In another unaired segment from the town hall taping, Trump looked ahead to a potential second presidency and said he doesn't think he would be able to work with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"He'll probably end up endorsing me honestly. I don't know that I can work with him. ... He made it very easy for the Democrats," Trump said, later adding, "So I don't know what his status would be."

With just four days before the next big race for the GOP presidential nomination, in South Carolina, Trump made very little mention of Haley, his main remaining primary challenger, only saying he believes she doesn't know how to get out of the race.

"I don't think she knows how to get out of it," Trump said. 

He has won every contest so far and holds a huge lead in polls, but Haley has vowed to fight on, saying her message against him is important.

"She is doing poorly in the polls. Look, if she was doing well, I'd understand it," Trump said of Haley.

When asked how many debates with Biden he would commit to, Trump said he would do "as many as necessary" but said he believes Biden wouldn't want to debate him.

Trump once again floated the idea of holding a campaign event in Madison Square Garden and the Bronx in New York City, pointing to unauthorized immigrants coming to the city.

"It's horrible what's going on," he said. "I think there's a chance that people are very, very unhappy."

Tim Scott joins Trump

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was in the audience for the town hall taping and Trump gave him a shoutout, saying once again that Scott has been a better advocate for Trump than himself.

"In a very positive way, he has been much better for me than it was for himself," the former president said. "I've watched him and he doesn't like talking about himself. But boy, does he talk about Trump."

Trump downplayed the role of vice president but said he was looking for someone "that could help you from the voting standpoint." Scott is thought to be among the possible names whom Trump could pick for the Republican ticket.

"One thing that always surprises me is that the VP choice has absolutely no impact," Trump said. "It's whoever the president is."

Later, Scott joined Trump on stage to tout Trump policies and what Scott called his support from the Black community.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024 at 6:12AM by Soo Rin Kim and Lalee Ibssa, ABC News Permalink