FILE - In this June 28, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Donald Trump looked at the Russian grab for Ukraine, the thrust of troops into a sovereign nation, the explosion of mortars and missiles, the refugees and the tears, and treated it like a real estate deal, like picking up a golf course with someone else’s money. To him, it’s a case of “location, location, location.”

“Pretty smart,” Trump said of Vladimir Putin’s stark aggression. “He’s taken over a country for $2 worth of sanctions, taking over a country—really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people—and just walking right in.” Yes, that’s what the Manhattan developer said about the most significant war in Europe since 1945.

As his CPAC cronies shift from rootin’-for-Putin to oh-this-is-terrible-how-could-Biden-let-it-happen, it’s worth holding on to Trump’s initial reaction to the bloody horror: It’s about the deal, the “location,” the price. 

The Democrats, if they still know how to play political hardball, should make Trump wish he’d never said such words, as he did again at the recent CPAC conference, calling Putin “smart.” His toady Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has offered similar words of praise for Putin. Fawning international felons is really a thing with these guys.

In black-and-white partisan terms, it’s time for the Democrats to nail Trump for his grotesque cozying up to Putin. Now that Moscow’s murderous intent is apparent, now that the problem with Ukraine is no longer an impossible-to-follow flowchart of Paul Manafort’s crimes and Alexander Vindman’s whistle-blowing, the Democrats can say, “Look at what Trump and Putin wrought.” It’s time to tie Trump to Putin’s attack on women and children instead of ignoring the connection.

In short, it’s time to make the Russian leader, for all partisan purposes, Donald Trump’s running mate, especially now that Trump has scrapped Mike Pence for the sin of upholding the Constitution.

Trump earned his first impeachment by threatening to cut off military aid to Ukraine unless its president, soon to be a comedian-turned-Churchillian-hero, met his political demands. Trump wanted the now-embattled President Volodymyr Zelensky to initiate a trumped-up investigation of Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Nice missiles you got there—shame if something should happen to them.

Vindman, the now-retired National Security Council staffer, testified against Trump, and exposed Trump’s insane threat. The Ukrainian-born American hero recently said that Trump’s delaying of hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid emboldened Putin’s aggression. “It’s because of Trump’s corruption that we have a less capable, less prepared Ukraine,” he told Vice. The Trumpian defense has been that Ukraine got its arms, so why is everyone kvetching? But, of course, they got them because of the whistle-blowing, and they got them late, costing lives. 

It’s time to put the two faces—Trump’s and Putin’s—side by side, framing them in the traditional campaign season bunting. Democratic consultants were saying throughout the 2020 race that the country didn’t want to hear “Russia, Russia, Russia” anymore, that it had grown tired of whether a Trump Tower meeting with sketchy Muscovites was about adoption policy or lifting sanctions.

It’s a different world now, a united world. Democrats and Republicans, all Americans, now see Putin for who he is, and the Democrats must remind the country who was the strongman’s ally and dupe. They should plaster Trump-Putin posters on every telephone pole, cascade them on every social media site. They should rub that picture of the two wanna-be strongmen—showing off Trump’s hairdo and Vlad’s bare chest—for every American voter to see and never forget.

History, if nothing else, demands it. 

In 1947, President Harry Truman led this country’s bipartisan commitment to containing Josef Stalin’s expansionism. He won an exhausted nation’s backing for military aid to Greece and Turkey, both of which could otherwise have fallen under Moscow’s grip. The Truman Doctrine became known as the American commitment to help those countries under attack by the Soviet Union. It didn’t end there; it began an American gut-level connection with those smaller countries fighting Russian domination. The “captive nations,” they were called. 

That commitment to fighting Soviet aggression revitalized the American spirit throughout the Cold War. 

I remember as a kid rooting for the brave people of Hungary who were standing up to Soviet tanks in 1956. I remember in grad school watching with awe as the Czechs lived a brief “springtime of freedom” before being crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks in 1968. I grew up in Pennsylvania, home to a concentration of Americans of Slavic descent, where onion-domed orthodox churches are commonplace. The connection to eastern Europe was more apparent for us, but all Americans felt it, whether it was Roman Catholics of Polish descent or marchers for Soviet Jewry begging the Kremlin to “let my people go.”

And all that time, we prayed—literally, in my church—for the “conversion of Russia” to something better, freer, less predatory. 

In all those decades, the late 1940s through the early 1990s, it would have been unimaginable for an American politician to take Moscow’s side in those crushing assaults on human and national liberty we saw in Budapest and Prague—at least not a politician who hoped to lead the country. They would have paid for it at the ballot box if they had. Trump can be made to pay today and in 2024 because Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded Americans of what aggression looks like. 

It was one thing for Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s campaign six years ago and circulate stories helpful to Trump on social media. It was one thing to praise WikiLeaks or kick Trump’s staff out of his summit with Putin in Helsinki.

But that isn’t the same as watching a bullying Putin behave like Stalin. So it’s not too soon to get those 2024 “Trump-Putin” posters up.

Why? Because it makes simple partisan sense. In 1976, Jimmy Carter became president in no small part because the very decent Gerald Ford misspoke at one of their presidential debates and seemed to deny that the Soviets had domination over eastern Europe. He repeated the blunder again and again, giving a former Georgia governor a chance to punch above his weight on foreign policy against a sitting president. Without that blunder, I might not have been a speechwriter for President Carter.

I was in the White House in 1979 when Soviet troops rolled into Afghanistan. Their blatant disregard for national sovereignty kicked off decades of war, including the rise of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Carter’s strong response to the invasion—sanctions, pulling out of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics—didn’t win him many friends, and it didn’t dislodge the Russians. But his decision to arm the mujahideen led to the Red Army turning tail a few years later. We knew in the White House that between inflation, unemployment, Iranian hostages, and Moscow on the march, we faced a tougher reelection fight than even Truman.

Biden is in a better position, and he has handled the invasion masterfully, cementing the alliance in a way that seemed inconceivable a month ago. We don’t know what will happen on the ground in Kyiv or throughout the beleaguered country in the coming days. But we know that Donald Trump made this invasion possible—and did some early cheering for it. Not to point that out would be political malpractice.

Chris Matthews

Follow Chris on Twitter @HardballChris. Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster published his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, on June 1, now out in paperback. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.