Voters believe Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine under Trump. Logic agrees
“Swing voters, Trump/Biden voters, they seem to buy the idea that Putin wouldn’t have done this if Trump was president. How does the Democratic Party answer for that? I don’t buy that, I don’t think that matches logic, but voters do.”
That was NBC’s Chuck Todd on a recent edition of “Meet the Press Daily,” sharing his disbelief that Russia would have invaded Ukraine if Donald Trump were still president. Todd’s comments came in reaction to recent polls showing that a solid majority of Americans believe exactly that.
This isn’t exactly a hypothetical, of course, considering that Trump was president for four years, not too long ago, while Vladimir Putin was president of Russia.
Per The Hill: “A new Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)-Harris Poll survey released Friday found that 62 percent of those polled believed Putin would not be moving against Ukraine if Trump had been president. When looking strictly at the answers of Democrats and Republicans, 85 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats answered this way.”
Another poll released this week from HarrisX echoes the Harvard poll: 58 percent of voters blame Biden’s policies for the Russian invasion, while 42 percent blame Trump’s policies. Among independents, the people who ultimately decide many elections, 66 percent blame Biden while just 34 percent blame Trump.
To peel the onion further, here are some easy questions to ask if you take away all the usual distractions that the mere mention of the names “Trump” or “Biden” provides to any conversation from a partisan perspective:
Did Putin invade any neighboring countries when Trump was in power from January 2017 to January 2021? (Answer: No.)
Did Putin annex any neighboring countries when President Obama was in power prior to Trump? (Answer: Yes — Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.)
Yet here we are, almost 14 months since Trump was in the Oval Office, and he’s still living rent-free in the minds of those who get paid to talk about world affairs on TV. And as usual, there’s a disconnect between them and the public.
Here are some facts:
— Under Trump, ISIS went from one of our top threats during the Obama years to almost nonexistent. The ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria was destroyed. Attacks and beheadings of Westerners stopped. ISIS became an afterthought.
— Under Trump, North Korea went from carrying out regular missile tests over or near neighboring countries, including Japan, and regularly threatening to obliterate the U.S., to being relatively well-behaved beyond its borders. It stopped missile tests for 18 months, from late 2017 to mid-2019, and it dialed-down its reckless rhetoric. Not a perfect result, but an improvement from the Obama-Biden years.
It should be noted that President Obama also initiated the infamous U.S.-Russia “reset,” complete with a big red “Reset” button that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed to her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
And it was Obama and Biden who mocked then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for declaring that Russia was our biggest geopolitical foe during a presidential debate a decade ago.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years,” Obama declared during that October 2012 debate. “But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policy of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
Biden, during a 2012 campaign rally, said “I think it’s fair to say when it comes to Russia, based on only what we know he’s said so far, Governor Romney is mired in a Cold War mindset,” which viewed the world “through a Cold War prism that is totally out of touch with the realities of the 21st Century.”
Here’s what the New York Times said about Romney’s worldview in 2012: “Mitt Romney still considers Russia to be America’s ‘No. 1 geopolitical foe.’ His comments display either a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics. Either way, they are reckless and unworthy of a major presidential contender.”
As CNN’s Chris Cillizza remarked on Twitter about the Obama-Romney exchange of a decade earlier: “What looked like a major flub during the 2012 campaign – and was used as a political cudgel by Obama – now looks very, very different.”
So why did Putin wait until now to invade Ukraine?
It’s hard not to connect a dot back to the deadly debacle of the U.S. withdrawal of Afghanistan last August. The Biden administration was caught completely flat-footed when the Taliban took Kabul far faster than anyone on Team Biden expected. It got infinitely worse when images were broadcast around the world showing Afghans hanging off of U.S. airplanes, trying to escape. The killing of 13 U.S. service members by an ISIS-K bomber after we handed security over to the Taliban was the final blow that marked a downward spiral for President Biden.
Chuck Todd believes Putin would have invaded Ukraine even if Trump were president. But former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley sees it differently.
“What I will tell you about President Trump is, as much as everybody wants to talk about what he says, what I look at is what he did,” Haley told Todd on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “He sanctioned Russia. He expelled diplomats. He shut off Nord Stream 2, which is all Putin ever wanted. He built up our military. And he made us energy independent. All of those things countered Putin and countered Russia. This never would have happened under Trump.”
Hard to argue with any of those points.
This is all ultimately irrelevant, of course. Hypotheticals aren’t helping brave, resilient Ukrainians in their fight against Russia — and it doesn’t matter which president or ex-president is to blame.
What matters is what happens moving forward and hitting Putin where it hurts. And that starts with the U.S. becoming more energy independent again.
As that recent HarrisX poll asked, “In light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and soaring gasoline prices, should the Biden administration ease its focus on climate change and allow more oil and natural gas exploration in the U.S. or not?” Sixty-nine percent of respondents said “yes,” including a majority of Democrats.
But President Biden, who shut down the Keystone XL pipeline less than 24 hours after taking office and then suspended drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, isn’t budging.
To do that would mean to admit error — something that is a foreign concept in this administration.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that Russia attacked Georgia in 2010, while President Obama was in office. In fact, Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, during the presidency of George W. Bush.