Russia and the Republicans

Russia’s unprovoked war upon Ukraine is causing a political schizophrenia for many Republicans. They assail President Biden as too weak in taking on Russia, but don’t want to offend their own party’s leader, Donald Trump, a fan of Vladimir Putin.

Most of all, they don’t want this crisis to interfere with their plans to take back control of Congress in the midterm elections. Rattling Trump’s cage isn’t in that playbook.

You can see their contortions in plain view — and by a little monitoring of their preferred venue, Fox News.

During the State of the Union — always a political Kabuki dance — Republicans applauded the Ukrainians during that part of the president’s speech, but didn’t look happy about it: House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) seemed busy checking messages on his phone; Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) looked even stiffer than usual, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) appeared to smirk.

McCarthy had blasted Biden for not providing more military assistance to Ukraine: “Sadly President Biden consistently chose appeasement.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) earlier charged Putin was “walking all over” the president.

They apparently forgot that Donald Trump actually withheld aid to Ukraine — unless Ukraine delivered some dirt on Joe Biden. Trump was impeached for this, but McCarthy and Graham dismissed it as a “nothingburger.”

Then there is the hawkish Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who on ABC last weekend accused the president of “pussyfooting around. The financial sanctions are riddled with loopholes.”

Four times moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Cotton if he would condemn Trump’s praise of Putin. Four times Cotton refused.

The Biden administration has committed $1 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, and the sanctions Biden engineered are draconian. Cotton’s GOP colleague, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), says they will be “cataclysmic” for Moscow; at least one expert predicts a Russian depression.

Or look at J.D. Vance, the once anti-Trumper and acclaimed author now running for the Senate in Ohio and now pandering to the Trump crowd: Initially Vance told Steve Bannon he didn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” Someone then apparently told him there are 80,000 Ukrainians — immigrants and their descendants — in Ohio (as well as from other Eastern European countries) who hate the Russians — and Vance backpedaled.

At the recent forum of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), the citadel of right-wing pro-Trump Republicans, there was far more concern about rogue Canadian truckers or curbing transgender athletes than there was about Russians killing Ukrainians.

On Fox News the contradictions abound. One prime time anchor is pro-Putin, the others knock Biden for being soft on Russia, while praising Trump.

Kayleigh McEnany, one of the former president’s factually challenged press secretaries who now serves as a Fox co-hostboasted about how Trump “gave the Ukrainians weaponry,” neglecting to mention he also withheld millions for corrupt political reasons. 

Sometimes it’s just weird: I recently watched Fox News contributor, former Arkansas governor, GOP presidential candidate and father of another Trump press secretary, Mike Huckabee tell Sean Hannity: “The Houston Astros got in trouble for stealing signals… Joe Biden stands at the podium and gives them away.” The administration did leak classified intelligence on what the Russians were up to — which helped galvanize public opinion to the dismay of Putin.

It’s worth noting that in contrast, some Fox News reporters in Ukraine and its Pentagon reporter, Jennifer Griffin, provide superb reporting.

What Biden also did was quietly build back trust in the NATO alliance. By not publicly pressuring the Germans, it facilitated Berlin taking the most surprising and dramatic move: scotching the natural gas pipeline from Russia and providing military assistance to Ukraine.

Frank Wisner, a former top diplomat in Republican and Democratic administrations and a harsh critic of Biden’s Afghanistan withdraw, told me the president’s performance in this instance has been “masterful: Joe Biden, without bragging, has put together a Western alliance like we haven’t seen since the founding days of NATO.” That was in 1949. 

Former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen agrees: “Biden, behind the scenes, was brilliant before the invasion and then in not taking Putin’s bait on nuclear weapons.” But Cohen told me he anticipates dangerous times ahead, unless the Russians take an off ramp.

Possible off ramps might include Putin declaring victory — he got the world’s attention and Ukraine will never be in NATO; external pressures, principally from China but also potentially India and Israel, all with Russian ties; or an internal revolt as the economy tanks and body bags come home.

Cohen thinks it much more likely that Putin, in a bloody war, will occupy Ukraine: “He’s convinced we’ll fold on the sanctions before he does, that oil is king and the West needs that.”

If the war rages on, the former three-term Republican Senator has little doubt that his old party will turn on Biden for weakness, charging he’s unable to negotiate with Putin and focus on the real problem, China.

That may be good politics and will please Trump, but it would be terrible for America and most of the world.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2022 midterm elections attack on democracy Donald Trump Fox News George Stephanopoulos J.D. Vance Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Ohio Republican Party Russian invasion of Ukraine Sean Hannity Steve Bannon Susan Collins sympathy for Ukraine Tom Cotton Trump endorsements Trump Putin summit trumpism Trump–Ukraine scandal Ukrainian resistance Ukrainian voters Ukrainians Vladimir Putin

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