CPAC spotlights Republican rift over war in Ukraine

Former President Trump
Greg Nash
Former President Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., on Saturday, March 4, 2023.

Former President Donald Trump and his strongest supporters used the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week to rail against U.S. aid to Ukraine, spotlighting how the war is emerging as a wedge issue in the upcoming Republican primary election. 

Trump, his former White House strategist Steve Bannon, and Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) used the annual gathering of conservatives to lambast the Biden administration for continuing to send weapons and humanitarian dollars to Kyiv.  

While aid to the embattled country is widely supported by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and by several White House hopefuls, top contenders including Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) have taken a more protectionist stance and indicated a willingness to cut Kyiv off.  

“You’re going to have World War III, by the way. We’re going to have World War III if something doesn’t happen fast. I am the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent World War III,” Trump said Saturday during CPAC’s keynote speech just outside Washington, D.C., in National Harbor, Md. 

A little more than a year after Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, the U.S. government has given nearly $80 billion to Kyiv, including more than $32 billion in lethal aid. 

Such help has received wide bipartisan backing, including from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former Vice President Mike Pence, the latter of whom has called for Washington to double down on support for Ukraine. Pence in February stressed that there can be “no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for apologists for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”  

But Trump, who turned GOP foreign policy on its head during the 2016 presidential race, has spent his political career haranguing so called “forever wars,” first referring to the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and other terrorist groups across the Middle East and Africa.  

Once Trump entered the White House, he pressed for a more “America First,” isolationist stance that supported a curtailed foreign and military presence and focused instead on pressing domestic issues, a view that many Republicans began to share.

Now, Trump along with his supporters have turned their eyes to the Biden administration’s support to Ukraine, appearing to tap into a growing softening of public backing for the country the longer the war drags on.  

In a final-day CPAC straw poll, some 79 percent of responders said they disapprove of the U.S. giving billions of dollars in aid to help Ukraine, with 61 percent who strongly disapprove.  

That comes less than a month after a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that less than half of U.S. adults, about 48 percent, say they favor the U.S. providing weapons to Ukraine, down from 60 percent in May 2022. 

Also skewing the GOP message toward isolationist ideology at CPAC was the notable silence from others on the topic of Ukraine. 

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley –both of whom have advocated for keeping aid to Ukraine running as a national security interest – declined to touch the subject in their addresses. 

Others who may have offered alternate views chose not to show up to CPAC altogether, including DeSantis, Pence, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R). 

While DeSantis hasn’t outright called for Ukraine to be cut off, he has warned of so-called “blank-checks,” last month telling Fox News: “I don’t think it’s in our interest to be getting into a proxy war.” 

The trepidation to wade into the topic has left the door wide open for far-right voices to link the U.S. focus on Ukraine to inaction on domestic matters.  

Bannon at CPAC said that every Republican who supports the war in Ukraine “should be turfed out.” 

Greene took time in her speech to falsely claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wants America’s “sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine.” 

“I think the U.S. should be pushing for peace in Ukraine instead of funding and continuing a war that seems to be escalating and putting the entire world at risk of world war three,” Greene said Friday during CPAC, according to The Guardian.  

And Gaetz questioned U.S. support for the embattled country, saying he is against American taxpayers having to “foot the bill for Ukraine.” 

“Why should Americans have to pay the costs for freedom elsewhere when our own leaders won’t stand up for our freedom here?” Gaetz told the audience.  

Whether the GOP divide makes a difference come electoral voting, however, remains to be seen.  

Historically, foreign policy has not been a deciding factor in a national election when the country is not at war. 

Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute told The Hill that “the jury is still out” as to whether Ukraine will become an issue on the campaign trail.  

“I can’t imagine that the serious people in the race or considering would allow the likes of Bannon, Greene and Gaetz to set the criteria for what makes good foreign policy,” Pletka said. 

“Certainly, I don’t see a scenario in which Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo or Mike Pence will allow this sort of . . . isolationism to go unopposed.” 

Tags 2024 presidential election CPAC Donald Trump GOP presidential primary Marjorie Taylor Greene Matt Gaetz Mike Pence Mike Pence Mike Pompeo Nikki Haley Ron DeSantis Russia-Ukraine war Steve Bannon Ukraine aid

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