White House avoids Trump attacks on Russia-Ukraine
President Biden has largely avoided pointing the finger at his predecessor on Ukraine, even though some Democrats believe he could defang GOP attacks over Russia by drawing a contrast with former President Trump.
Trump’s frequent embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently put Republicans in an awkward position. Ukraine was also at the center of Trump’s first impeachment after his White House held up security assistance to Ukraine as Trump sought an investigation into the Biden family.
Despite that history, the White House has signaled that Trump is not going to be a major part of its talking points on the Russia crisis.
It fits in with a pattern, as Biden has generally avoided putting the focus on Trump. An exception was the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, when Biden offered blistering criticism of Trump’s role.
Biden has tried to strike a unifying tone on Ukraine as he’s sought support for both parties. Republicans have offered tepid support for some of Biden’s moves, even as they have painted his actions as weak, late and insufficient.
The White House has shown a willingness to hit back at the GOP.
Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in a rare move, singled out Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who had accused the administration of employing “timidity and half measures” on Ukraine. She knocked Cotton and other Republicans for voting against a $1.5 trillion government funding bill that included $13.6 billion in assistance for Ukraine.
But there has been scant mention of Trump.
Behind the scenes, Democrats have been saying the White House needs to do more to go on the offensive, particularly as the midterm elections draw closer and Republicans have stepped up the attacks on Biden’s perceived strength.
American Bridge, a liberal super PAC, has released a new Ukrainian-language ad in battleground states with large Ukrainian American populations that play up Trump’s praise of Putin. The ads signal the damage that some Democrats think can be made on Trump and the GOP electorally by highlighting Trump’s past handling of Russia and Ukraine.
“We need to remember how much Trump undermined Ukraine’s stability in the region and welcomed the advances of Vladimir Putin into America’s election system as well as contributing to destabilizing the region,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and director of Hunter College’s public policy program.
“This isn’t the time to take a passive approach,” said another Democratic strategist, who asked to speak anonymously to offer more candid criticism. “Every day, they need to be out there reminding people what we stand for and what Republicans stand for.”
Smikle said that the White House should do more to remind the public of Trump’s behavior with Russia, but acknowledged one reason why the administration may be reluctant to do so.
“There is sometimes this sort of unwritten rule that you don’t blame the prior administration too directly for the current state of affairs,” Smikle said.
Psaki did address Trump’s recent comments calling Putin a “genius” when asked about them during a briefing last month before Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
“Well, as a matter of policy, we try not to take advice from anyone who praises President Putin and his military strategy,” Psaki said at the time. “So, there’s a bit of a different tactic, a bit of a different approach. And that’s probably why President Biden, and not his predecessor, was able to rally the world and the global community in taking steps against Russia’s aggression.”
Biden also dismissed Trump’s claims about Putin being a “genius” during an interview with a progressive host in February, but otherwise he has not been mentioning the former president.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain has also been spotted retweeting a couple of messages recalling Trump and his first impeachment, including one from the founder of Talking Points Memo that read in part: “It’s still weird to remember that not even 18 months ago Putin’s biggest ally on the world stage was the President of the United States.”
Republicans have been forced to grapple with Trump’s recent comments about Putin, and some have confronted questions about their stance on his impeachment in light of renewed focus on aid to Ukraine.
“It was obviously not a perfect phone call, there was a lot wrong with it, but ultimately the aid did get to Ukraine at that point,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said on “Fox News Sunday” when asked about Trump’s 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the center of the impeachment.
With no sign of the war letting up anytime soon, Trump and his “America First” foreign policy are likely to continue to hang over the conversation about how to address the ongoing crisis.
Some strategists say the White House is best served leaving the former president out of the mix.
“Just like dealing with former President Trump, it’s somewhat tricky. You can’t afford to engage in a race to the bottom, but you have to defend yourself and point out the hypocrisy,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who served as a senior aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “You have to push back against some of this stuff. But you can’t just spend your whole time in the gutter.
At the same time, Manley said that the White House shouldn’t go on offense with the former president.
“It makes more sense to go after a sitting senator to highlight the fact that his party is spiraling out of control,” Manley continued, saying Psaki “played it exactly right last week” with Cotton.
“You can’t spend your whole time going after these guys because you’re going to spend all your time in the crazy zone, but you have to go after them when you can.”