Former President Donald Trump, who has been criticized for embracing some of the rhetoric of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler on the campaign trail, praised the genocidal German dictator while he was in the White House, his former chief of staff and other top aides told CNN.

“He said, ‘Well, but Hitler did some good things.’ I said, ‘Well, what?’ And he said, ‘Well, [Hitler] rebuilt the economy.’ But what did he do with that rebuilt economy? He turned it against his own people and against the world. And I said, ‘Sir, you can never say anything good about the guy. Nothing,’” retired Marine Gen. John Kelly said. “It’s pretty hard to believe he missed the Holocaust, though, and pretty hard to understand how he missed the 400,000 American GIs that were killed in the European theater.”

What You Need To Know

  • Former President Donald Trump praised the genocidal Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler while he was in the White House, his former chief of staff and other top aides told CNN

  • Trump has embraced some of the racist and dehumanizing rhetoric of Hitler on the campaign trail

  • “He said, ‘Well, but Hitler did some good things,’” retired Marine General John Kelly, who served as Trump's chief of staff from 2017 to 2019, said
  • President Joe Biden’s campaign and administration quickly denounced the reported praise Trump had for autocrats past and present

  • Last week, Trump met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, one of Europe’s most authoritarian leaders; Biden said after the meeting Orban was “looking for dictatorship"

Kelly said Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive 2024 nominee, admired the loyalty of Nazi leaders and generals to Hitler, aspiring to receive the same loyalty from the U.S. military’s highest ranking officers.

“He would ask about the loyalty issues and about how, when I pointed out to him the German generals as a group were not loyal to him, and in fact tried to assassinate him a few times, and he didn’t know that,” Kelly said. “He truly believed, when he brought us generals in, that we would be loyal — that we would do anything he wanted us to do.”

The former Marine general served as Trump's chief of staff from July 2017 to January 2019 and much of what he described to CNN had been previously reported, though this is the first time Kelly has spoken publicly about what he witnessed. He also said Trump was laudatory of Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, praise he has repeated publicly over the years and as recently as the last few months.

“He views himself as a big guy,” Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton told CNN. “He likes dealing with other big guys, and big guys like Erdogan in Turkey get to put people in jail and you don’t have to ask anybody’s permission. He kind of likes that.”

Kelly similarly said Trump’s affinity for authoritarians was connected to his desire to appear as a “tough guy.”

Trump’s campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung didn’t address Kelly, Bolton and other aides’ claims in the CNN report, but told the network in a statement that Kelly and Bolton “beclowned themselves” and urged them to “seek professional help.”

Biden’s campaign and administration quickly denounced the reported praise Trump had for autocrats past and present.

“I think we speak for the VAST majority of human beings on planet Earth when we say that Adolf Hitler did not — in fact – do ‘good things,’” Biden campaign spokesperson Sarafina Chitika said in a statement. “When Donald Trump talks like a dictator, praises dictators, and says he wants to be a dictator, we should probably believe him.”

Trump has said he will be a dictator for the first day of his presidency to enact draconian immigration policies, expand domestic oil drilling and free those imprisoned for alleged and proven crimes connected to the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters in a bid to keep him in power after his 2020 presidential election loss. Those prisoners, which number in the hundreds and include leaders of white nationalist militias and fascist street gangs, have repeatedly been described by Trump as “hostages.”

Historians and Biden’s campaign have said Trump has echoed Hitler and the propaganda of genocidal regimes throughout history by describing his political enemies as “vermin” and saying immigrants are diseased and “poisoning the blood of our country.” He also dined in late 2022 with the Hitler-praising rapper Ye, formerly Kanye West, and the Holocaust-denying Nick Fuentes, a major voice in America’s white nationalist movement. 

He has also fully embraced “Great Replacement Theory,” a false conspiracy theory that asserts Democrats and other elites — often Jews, though Trump has never made that explicit — are working to replace America’s white majority with violent, uncivilized masses of nonwhite immigrants. The conspiracy theory has inspired numerous racist mass shootings, including the killing of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and the murder of 10 shoppers at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store in 2022.

Biden is “allowing thousands and thousands of people to come in from China, Iran, Yemen, the Congo, Syria and a lot of other nations. Many that nations are not very friendly to us,” Trump baselessly charged in a speech near the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas last month. “He's transported the entire columns of fighting-age men and they're all at a certain age and you look at them, and I said ‘they look like warriors to me, something's going on.’ It's bad.”

Despite not explicitly labeling Jews as the architects of the so-called great replacement, the largest organization combating antisemitism in the U.S. took notice of his rhetoric and denounced his endorsement of the theory that inspired the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

“Insinuating that immigrants are ‘poisoning the blood of our country’ echoes nativist talking points and has the potential to cause real danger and violence. We have seen this kind of toxic rhetoric inspire real-world violence before in places like Pittsburgh and El Paso. It should have no place in our politics, period,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said last year, referencing the two deadly mass shootings of Jewish and Hispanic Americans.

Beyond the pledge to deport millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. and the promise to punish the “vermin” that he believes his political foes to be, Trump is also seeking to reshape the federal government to better bend to his will in a second term, according to plans he, his campaign and his allies have publicly shared. That tracks with his frustrations from his first term, former aides told CNN, when the government could not always work towards his whims.

“He was shocked that he didn’t have dictatorial-type powers to send US forces places or to move money around within the budget,” Kelly said. “And he looked at Putin and Xi and that nutcase in North Korea as people who were like him in terms of being a tough guy.”

Last week, Trump met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, one of Europe’s most authoritarian leaders. Biden said after the meeting Orban was “looking for dictatorship.”

“He's a non-controversial figure because he says, 'This is the way it's going to be,’ and that's the end of it. Right?" Trump said from a ballroom stage as he introduced Orban to the cheering crowd. “He’s the boss.”