Tucker Carlson’s Lesson in the Perils of Giving Airtime to an Autocrat

Tucker Carlson left Moscow more than a week ago, riding high from an interview with President Vladimir Putin of Russia that returned him to the spotlight after his abrupt cancellation by Fox News last spring.

But the interview with the wartime autocrat, mocked in various corners of the political media world for its soft touch, continues to have a long and tortured afterlife — becoming a trending topic all over again Friday after Putin’s most vocal domestic opponent, Alexei Navalny, turned up dead in a Russian prison.

“This is what Putin’s Russia is, @TuckerCarlson,” Liz Cheney, a former Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, wrote on X after the news of Navalny’s death broke Friday. “And you are Putin’s useful idiot.”

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Naomi Biden, President Joe Biden’s granddaughter, also weighed in, pointing to a video that Carlson had recently posted in which he contrasted the supposed splendors of Russia under Putin’s leadership with the “filth and crime” of the United States. “Has anything aged so poorly, so quickly before?” Naomi Biden wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In a statement to The New York Times on Friday, Carlson said: “It’s horrifying what happened to Navalny. The whole thing is barbaric and awful. No decent person would defend it.”

The comment represented a notable change in tone from earlier this week, when he appeared to offer a blase opinion regarding Russia’s treatment of Navalny, who was first imprisoned three years ago on charges of corruption and “extremism” that the United States called baseless.

Asked at a conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Monday why he had not questioned Putin about Russia’s free speech crackdown, Navalny’s jailing or suspected political assassinations, Carlson said those were “the things that every other American media outlet talks about.” (Carlson was, in fact, the first Western media figure to interview Putin in more than two years.)

But, Carlson said then, “leadership requires killing people — sorry, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be a leader” — comments that came under still more criticism after Navalny’s death.

Carlson said in a statement Friday that his remarks about leadership “had zero” to do with Navalny. “I wasn’t referring to him, which is obvious in context. I’m totally opposed to killing.”

Although Carlson did press Putin during the interview on Russia’s detention of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich, he sat silent for long stretches as Putin conducted a history lecture that provided a one-sided and often false narrative about Ukraine.

Carlson’s fans and supporters on X portrayed criticism of his interview as sour grapes from mainstream journalists who did not get to interview Putin themselves.

But on Wednesday, a new pundit joined the chorus of those who said Carlson had gone too easily on Putin — Putin himself.

Speaking with a state television host, Putin said he was disappointed that Carlson had not asked “so-called sharp questions” because he wanted the opportunity to “respond sharply” in his own answers.

“He turned out to be patient and listened to my lengthy dialogues, especially those related to history, and didn’t give me reason to do what I was ready for,” Putin said. “So, frankly, I didn’t get complete satisfaction from this interview.”

Justin Wells, one of Carlson’s top producers, responded Friday that viewers should “judge for themselves.”

Putin’s mockery of Carlson came as the former Fox host was basking in the aftermath of his interview by offering a steady stream of praise for Russia and Putin, whose leadership he has extolled as superior to Biden’s.

On Wednesday, Carlson posted a short video recorded at a Russian grocery store, saying its selection and prices offered an example of Russia’s superiority over the United States, which he described as rife with “filth and crime and inflation.”

“Coming to a Russian grocery store, the heart of evil, and seeing what things cost and how people live, it will radicalize you against our leaders,” he said in the video. “That’s how I feel, anyway — radicalized.”

The video drew a bipartisan rebuke: from Naomi Biden and, before her, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

As a polemicist who has long dabbled in pro-Russia narratives and now relies on subscriptions from those drawn to just such content, Carlson operates in a sphere where the criticism he has received this week could be a catalyst for still more support.

“He’s just measured by an entirely different yardstick,” said Nicole Hemmer, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University who studies conservative media. “Tucker under attack is great for Tucker.”

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