The Washington Post
By Isaac Stanley-Becker, Josh Dawsey, Marianna Sotomayor and Mike DeBonis
Leading Republicans on Thursday assailed Russia for plunging Europe into its first major land war in decades — isolating former president Donald Trump, the de facto standard-bearer of their party, in his praise for the country’s authoritarian leader.
From Capitol Hill to the campaign trail, prominent GOP voices, including some close Trump loyalists, vowed that Russian President Vladimir Putin would pay a severe price for ordering a military offensive against Ukraine, even as the party sought to blame President Biden for the crisis. Meanwhile, Republican leaders strained to articulate an alternative policy to counter Russia’s revanchist campaign — at once insisting on more severe measures and opposing the deployment of U.S. forces, which Biden has said is not an option.
The crosscurrents point to the hurdles Republicans face in staking out a position against foreign adversaries that include not just Russia but also China as they contend with the former president’s admiration for strongmen and an ascendant wing within their party that disfavors foreign intervention.
The competing impulses were captured in the reaction of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a rising GOP star who replaced the hawkish Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as chair of the party’s House Conference.
Stefanik’s statement, mostly trained on Biden’s leadership capacities, also criticized Putin as a “gutless, bloodthirsty, authoritarian dictator.” The solution she proposed, with few details, was “strength.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has suggested blocking Ukraine from joining the NATO alliance, which would mean acceding to a key Putin demand, nonetheless backed sweeping action in a Thursday statement.
“President Biden must act now to hit Vladimir Putin where it hurts, beginning with Russia’s energy sector,” he said. “The Biden administration should sanction Russian energy production to a halt, and help arm the Ukrainians to defend themselves.”
Trump, in a radio interview on Tuesday, called Putin’s actions “genius,” though he appeared to strike a sarcastic tone at times. On Wednesday, he told donors gathered at his Mar-a-Lago Club that Putin’s moves were “pretty smart,” according to a video of his remarks. And in an appearance on Fox News later that evening, he made the claim that the invasion was a result of what he falsely described as the “rigged election” in 2020.
Trump has often told aides that Putin is “a brilliant strategist, and really tough, and really smart and savvy,” said a person who has spoken to him about it on numerous occasions, 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 the condition of anonymity to share private discussions, said the former president is “very respectful of Putin, in a perverse sort of way.”
A second adviser said Trump’s observations on Wednesday were meant not to buttress Putin, but to contrast him with Biden and portray Biden as not up for the job, adding that some allies were trying to get him to tweak his comments. A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.
Former vice president Mike Pence, while critical of Biden, also sharply attacked Putin in a Fox News appearance Wednesday evening. “No one in the GOP should be praising Vladimir Putin. He’s a former KGB officer and a dictator and a thug. We should be clear about that,” said Marc Short, the former vice president’s longtime chief of staff, in an interview.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he had breakfast Thursday with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in between a conversation with a top State Department official and calls with Democratic senators to discuss a supplemental appropriations bill that would aid the Ukrainian people. Graham said he wasn’t a fan of Trump’s “genius” comment about Putin, “but I understood what the president was trying to say.”
“Number one, the Republican Party is going to rally around 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’s happening to Ukraine is detrimental to our national security and well-being.”
Competitive primaries throughout the country showcased the GOP’s divisions on foreign policy as well as a clear preference within segments of the party not to engage on Putin’s attack, which is quickly becoming the most significant threat to European security since World War II.
In the crowded Senate contest in Ohio, J.D. Vance, a self-styled populist who rose to prominence with the publication of his 2016 “Hillbilly Elegy,” said this week, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” In a second Thursday statement, he said, “Russia’s assault on Ukraine is unquestionably a tragedy.” But he also claimed that demands for a response are thinly veiled calls for military intervention, which he rejected.
By contrast, Jane Timken, a former chair of the state party who has been endorsed by retiring senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), said, “I believe ‘America First’ means protecting American security interests at home and abroad.” At the same time, Timken reposted a statement from Trump that seemed to take glee in unfolding events: “Putin is playing Biden like a drum. It is not a pretty thing to watch!”
In Arizona, the three leading Senate candidates — each of whom released brief statements on Twitter — either declined or did not respond to requests for interviews about the crisis and what the GOP’s policy should be.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen by Republican strategists see as a formidable 2024 contender even if Trump runs again, did not mention the Russian invasion during a speech Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. His spokeswoman weighed in on Twitter earlier in the week, observing that the “USA is in no position to ‘promote democracy’ abroad while our own country is falling apart.”
Among other GOP figures thought to be eyeing presidential bids, some were more outspoken. But even those who boast foreign policy experience didn’t dwell 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, issued a statement Thursday saying he was “taught at West Point to be clear eyed about your enemy’s strength.”
“We must, united, act swiftly to impose real costs on Putin’s regime beyond the sanctions already imposed,” he said of the ongoing attack. “If we do not confront actions that disrupt peace and disregard sovereignty with strength, we will only invite more deadly and brazen attacks in the future.”
The views of Republicans voters are more nuanced on how to approach Russia, a shift that accelerated in the Trump era.
Tony Fabrizio, a prominent Republican pollster who has done surveys for Trump and a range of Senate and gubernatorial candidates, said there have been sharp changes in the party’s outlook on foreign policy in recent years. “China is clearly seen as the bigger threat,” said Fabrizio, who was Trump’s main pollster in 2016 and 2020. “And the party is split down the middle with roughly half being isolationists, which is a significant shift from 15 years ago.”
A recent Quinnipiac poll found Republicans evenly divided over Biden’s decision to send troops to bolster NATO allies in Eastern Europe, with 47 percent opposed and 43 percent backing the move — a split Fabrizio said he has found in his own polling this week. He said his polling showed even less Republican support for military support, and that Republicans viewed China as more of an “enemy” than Russia.
Short said the party had also shifted on foreign policy because of Trump — and is less likely to support military entanglements. “But I don’t think that’s where our party is, saying great things about Putin,” he said.
In the White House, Trump was resistant to criticism of Putin because he “thought the guy had valid points and was generally right about the things he would rail on,” said a former senior administration official who regularly discussed Putin with Trump. “He was always saying that Putin has his points, I understand him, we have a good relationship. I think he believed it. Putin played to his vanities and did it superbly. The same thing with Kim and even Xi,” this official said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump was not alone in expressing admiration for Putin this week. Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s onetime chief strategist, and Erik Prince, the former head of military contractor Blackwater, emphasized in a Thursday discussion aired on Bannon’s show that Putin had taken a hard line on social issues. “Putin ain’t woke,” 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. When asked at a news conference about Trump’s praise for Putin’s strategy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to address the former president’s comments, even as he called Putin a “bad guy” and an “authoritarian.”
“We need to do everything we can to stop him,” McConnell said.
Some Republican senators, such as Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, a former ambassador to Japan, were explicit in blaming Biden. In a statement, he said, “Despite Ukrainian President Zelensky’s persistent call for pre-invasion sanctions, the Biden administration chose to do nothing until it was too late and must now change course.” Others, even close allies of Trump, took a different view. “Ultimately, there is only one group of people responsible for the tragedies unfolding — Vladimir Putin and his cronies,” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said.
Of several dozen congressional offices contacted by The Washington Post, almost all either did not respond to questions about the former president’s remarks or pointed to 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 is not a ” thing praiseworthy about Putin. He’s a tyrant; he’s got the blood of innocent civilians on his hands; he’s a serial liar; he wants to undo the fact that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War; he’s a murderer with absolutely no regard for human life. Whether you vote red or blue, every American should understand Putin is evil.”
Trump’s influence over the party also sharpens 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 just makes it even more of a partisan issue,” Taylor said. “The frame of reference becomes, ‘Whatever helps Donald Trump.’ ”