The crosscurrents underscore the obstacles Republicans face in taking a stand against foreign adversaries that include not only Russia but also China, as they come to terms with the former president’s admiration for strongmen and a rising wing within their party which opposes foreign intervention.
The competing impulses were captured in the reaction of Rep. Elise Stefanik (RN.Y.), a rising GOP star who replaced hawkish Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as party conference chair.
Stefanik’s statement, primarily based on Biden’s leadership abilities, also criticized Putin as a “courageless, bloodthirsty and authoritarian dictator.” The solution she offered, with few details, was “force.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who suggested preventing Ukraine from joining the NATO alliance, which would mean granting a key Putin request, nevertheless backed drastic action in a statement Thursday.
“President Biden must act now to hit Vladimir Putin where it hurts, starting with Russia’s energy sector,” he said. “The Biden administration should sanction the shutdown of Russian energy production and help arm Ukrainians to defend themselves.”
Trump, in a radio interview on Tuesday, called Putin’s actions “genius,” although he appeared to sound sarcastic at times. On Wednesday, he told donors gathered at his Mar-a-Lago club that Putin’s actions were “pretty clever”, according to a video of his words. And during an appearance on Fox News later that evening, he claimed the invasion was the result of what he falsely described as the “rigged election” in 2020.
Trump has often told his aides that Putin is “a brilliant, and really tough, and really smart and savvy strategist,” said a person who spoke to him about it numerous times, and that “Biden is not up for it.” . He told donors gathered for dinner at Mar-a-Lago last year how “tough” Putin was according to another person who heard the comments. The person, who like others in this report spoke on condition of anonymity to share private discussions, said the former president was “very respectful of Putin, in a perverse way.”
A second adviser said Trump’s comments on Wednesday were not meant to buttress Putin, but to contrast him with Biden and paint Biden as not ready for the job, adding that some allies were trying to bring them to refine their comments. A Trump spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, while criticizing Biden, also sharply attacked Putin during an appearance on Fox News on Wednesday night. “No one in the GOP should praise Vladimir Putin. He is a former KGB officer, a dictator and a thug. We need to be clear about this,” Marc Short, the former vice president’s longtime chief of staff, said in an interview.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) said he had lunch with Trump on Thursday at Mar-a-Lago between a conversation with a senior State Department official and calls with Democratic senators to discuss an additional appropriations bill that would help the people of Ukraine. Graham said he was not a fan of Trump’s “brilliant” comment about Putin, “but I understood what the president was trying to say.”
“First, the Republican Party is going to buy into the idea that Putin is a thug and a crook,” Graham said in an interview. “I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Republican senators see what is happening to Ukraine is detrimental to our national security and well-being.”
Competitive primaries across the country have exposed GOP divisions on foreign policy as well as a clear preference within some segments of the party not to engage in attacking Putin, who is quickly becoming the threat most important for European security since the Second World War.
At Ohio’s crowded Senate contest, JD Vance, a self-proclaimed populist who rose to prominence with the publication of his “Hillbilly Elegy” in 2016, said this week, “I don’t care what happens to the Ukraine one way or another.” In a second Thursday declaration, he said, “Russia’s assault on Ukraine is unquestionably a tragedy.” But he also claimed that the demands for response are thinly veiled calls for military intervention, which he rejected.
By contrast, Jane Timken, a former state party chair who was endorsed by incumbent Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), said, “I believe ‘America First’ means protecting the interests of American security at home and abroad”. At the same time, Timken reposted a statement from Trump that appeared to be pleased with how events unfolded: “Putin plays Biden like a drum. It’s not a pretty sight!”
In Arizona, the three leading Senate candidates — each of whom posted brief statements on Twitter — declined or did not respond to requests for interviews about the crisis and what GOP policy should be.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, seen by Republican strategists as a formidable 2024 candidate even if Trump runs again, did not mention the Russian invasion during a speech Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. . His spokesperson weighed in on Twitter earlier in the week, observe that “the United States is unable to ‘promote democracy’ abroad as our own country crumbles.”
Of the other GOP figures who were considering presidential candidacies, some were more outspoken. But even those who boast of foreign policy experience haven’t dwelled on a strategy to counter Russian aggression. Nikki Haley, Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations, emphasized “strength” in a statement on the crisis. Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state whose recent assessment of Putin as “very shrewd” was Featured in Russian media, released a statement on Thursday saying he had “taught West Point to be clear about the strength of your enemy.”
“We must, united, act quickly to impose real costs on the Putin regime beyond the sanctions already imposed,” he said of the ongoing attack. “If we don’t stand firm against actions that disrupt peace and disregard sovereignty, we will only invite more deadly and brazen attacks in the future.”
Republican voters’ views are more nuanced on how to approach Russia, a shift that has accelerated in the Trump era.
Tony Fabrizio, a prominent Republican pollster who has conducted polls for Trump and a series of Senate and gubernatorial candidates, said there have been profound shifts in the party’s outlook on foreign policy in recent years. . “China is clearly seen as the biggest threat,” said Fabrizio, who was Trump’s top pollster in 2016 and 2020. “And the party is split in two, with about half being isolationists, which is a shift significant compared to 15 years ago.”
A recent A Quinnipiac poll found Republicans also divided over Biden’s decision to send troops to bolster NATO allies in Eastern Europe, with 47% opposing and 43% supporting the move – a split Fabrizio said he found in his own poll this week. He said his poll showed even less Republican support for military support, and Republicans saw China more as an “enemy” than Russia.
Short said the party also changed its foreign policy because of Trump – and was less likely to support military entanglements. “But I don’t think that’s where our party is, saying big things about Putin,” he said.
At the White House, Trump resisted Putin’s criticism because he “believed the guy had valid points and was generally right about the things he would go after,” a former senior US official said. administration that regularly discussed Putin with Trump. “He always said Putin was right, I understand that, we have a good relationship. I think he believed it. Putin played at his vanities and did it superbly. The same with Kim and even Xi,” the official said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump wasn’t the only one to express his admiration for Putin this week. Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, and Erik Prince, the former head of military contractor Blackwater, pointed out in a discussion on Bannon’s show on Thursday that Putin took a line tough on social issues. “Putin is not awake,” Bannon said. Fox News host Tucker Carlson told viewers they should ask themselves, “Why do I hate Putin so much?”
Most elected Republicans did not echo those comments, but few pushed back directly. Asked at a press conference about Trump’s praise for Putin’s strategy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to respond to the former president’s comments, even though he called Putin “nasty” and “overbearing”.
“We have to do everything we can to stop it,” McConnell said.
Some Republican senators, like Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, a former ambassador to Japan, have explicitly blamed Biden. In a statement, he said: “Despite Ukrainian President Zelensky’s persistent call for sanctions before the invasion, the Biden administration chose to do nothing until it was too late and must now change. heading.” Others, even close Trump allies, took a different view. “Ultimately, there is only one group of people responsible for the unfolding tragedies – Vladimir Putin and his cronies,” said Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Of several dozen congressional offices contacted by The Washington Post, nearly all either failed to respond to questions about the former president’s remarks or flagged statements that did not address the issue. One exception was Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a frequent Trump critic, who said in a statement that there was “nothing laudable about Putin.” He is a tyrant; he has the blood of innocent civilians on his hands; he is a serial liar; he wants to undo the fact that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War; he is a murderer with no respect for human life. Whether you vote red or blue, every American should understand that Putin is bad.”
Trump’s influence over the party also reinforces the partisan lens in which the crisis is unfolding, said Brian Taylor, an expert on Russian politics at Syracuse University.
“The Trump effect on the party makes it even more of a partisan issue,” Taylor said. “The frame of reference becomes, ‘Anything that helps Donald Trump.’ ”