Trump and other top conservatives rally to Putin's side as he threatens Ukraine

·5 min read
Trump and other top conservatives rally to Putin's side as he threatens Ukraine
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Then-President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, 2018.Chris McGrath/Getty Images
  • Trump and top conservatives have showered Putin with praise during a Ukraine crisis he's triggered.

  • The GOP is split over Putin's aggression and what to do about it.

  • But the party is largely unified behind one idea — that Biden is to blame for the crisis.

Former President Donald Trump and many leading conservative figures have been praising Russian President Vladimir Putin as he threatens Ukraine with war. Meanwhile, many are also bashing President Joe Biden's attempts to deter Putin from an attack while trying to minimize the possibility of any direct combat between the nuclear superpowers.

While it's not unusual for former presidents to disagree with their successors on policy, it is unorthodox for them to shower a US adversary like Putin with flattery — particularly given the Russian leader is poised to launch a major military offensive on a US ally.

But this hasn't stopped Trump and some of his close allies from expressing admiration for Putin, including over the Russian president's misleading justifications to use force against Ukraine. The common thread in the Republican complaints seem to be attempts to blame the crisis Putin has stoked on Biden.

In an appearance on the "Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show," Trump said Putin's justification for invading Ukraine was "savvy" and "genius."

"I went in yesterday, and there was a television screen, and I said, 'This is genius.' Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful," Trump said. "I said, 'How smart is that?' And he's going to go in and be a peacekeeper."

The former president has also ripped into Biden's approach to the situation, suggesting that the sanctions he imposed were "weak" while claiming that the crisis never would have happened if he were in office.

Trump has conveniently left out that his first impeachment was, in part, due to the fact he withheld roughly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine while pressuring it to launch an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter over bogus allegations of corruption. Ukraine has heavily relied on US assistance while fighting a war against Kremlin-backed rebels, the war Putin claims to now be entering on behalf of Russian speakers.

Trump's former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has also routinely praised Putin in recent weeks — even as Russia has gathered tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's border.

"He is a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts," Pompeo said of Putin during a Fox News interview in January. "He was a KGB agent, for goodness sakes. He knows how to use power. We should respect that."

In an interview with the Center for the National Interest last week, Pompeo described Putin as "very shrewd" and "very capable."

Pompeo also expressed "enormous respect" for Putin, an authoritarian who has ruled over Russia for 20 years. The Russian leader, who has taken steps to ensure he can be president for life, is widely viewed as an enemy to democracy. Putin's opponents often end up dead or imprisoned. He bullies and threatens smaller countries that neighbor Russia — invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 (and has invaded again in 2022). And, not to mention, Russia has interfered in US elections under Putin's watch, as he's sought to divide and weaken the country.

But Trump, Pompeo, and other conservatives like them apparently don't find these trends especially problematic.

Fox News' Tucker Carlson, the most-watched cable-news host and perhaps the most influential voice on the right beyond Trump, has repeatedly defended Putin on his show in recent months.

"It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much?" Carlson said on his show on Tuesday night. "Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?"

Carlson has echoed Putin's propaganda on Ukraine, characterizing it as a puppet of the US while bashing NATO.

The GOP's main position on the Ukraine crisis: It's Biden's fault

But the GOP has also splintered in many directions over Ukraine, which is perhaps a byproduct of the ways in which Trump has challenged the party's traditional stances on an array of issues — especially foreign policy.

A decade ago, it would've been unthinkable to see Republicans questioning support for NATO. In 2012, then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney described Russia as the top geopolitical foe of the US. But Trump adopted an unusually amicable disposition toward Russia, while habitually bashing NATO — at times raising concerns that the US was on the verge of leaving the alliance. In a party in which what Trump does and says increasingly sets the standard, this has opened the door for Republicans to follow suit.

Some congressional Republicans, like Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, have echoed the position of Carlson and effectively called for the US to stay out of it. Hawley recently questioned whether the US should support Ukraine's bid to join NATO, for example, as Russia calls for it to be permanently banned from the alliance. But others, like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, have called on Biden to take a far more aggressive stance.

"Europe is on the verge of war because of the weakness, the fecklessness of Joe Biden," Cruz recently told Fox News. The Texas Republican praised Biden on Wednesday, however, for moving to sanction the company behind Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of the few Republicans who has dared to publicly criticize Trump and has been ostracized as a result, ripped into his fellow House Republicans for criticizing Biden after the president announced new sanctions against Russia on Tuesday. In response to a tweet from House Republicans characterizing Biden as weak, Kinzinger wrote, "You can criticize policy but this is insane and feeds into Putins narrative. But hey, retweets amirite?"

Indeed, beyond outliers like Kinzinger, the GOP's only consistent position on the Ukraine crisis so far has been to blame Biden. Meanwhile, Ukraine has declared a state of emergency, and Putin could be on the verge of launching a major attack.

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