Donald Trump stands out as the only U.S. president to break with historical precedent by openly displaying regard for authoritarian leaders. One of the main recipients of Trump’s admiration has been the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. Both leaders have followed the strongman’s playbook: they have demonized large segments of society, conducted disinformation campaigns to forward their agendas, and under color of law, used police and the courts to punish the opposition. I argue for terming this form of governance manipulative statecraft, a set of strategic political practices that further the interests of the leader by bending the public interpretation of events into institutionalized and actionable agendas. I address two events in the last decade that illustrate manipulative statecraft and the corruption it fosters. The first is Trump’s deployment of federal forces in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, in mid-2020; the second is Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. I show that Trump’s admitted admiration for “strongman rule” is more complex than the mere hero worship it has been portrayed as; it is, more precisely, admiration for a particular form of statecraft, one that Trump sought to import for his own uses as president of the United States.