GOP can’t settle on Ukraine message

Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) did something remarkable in recent days – he united Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) And Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.).

Unfortunately for Graham, the congresswomen were brought together in condemnation of him after the senator urged Russian citizens to assassinate their president, Vladimir Putin.

Omar, responding to Graham’s remarks, expressed the wish that politicians would “cool it.” Greene went further, calling Graham’s comments “unhinged.”

Graham’s intervention was one of the most dramatic examples yet of a problem that has dogged the Republican Party since the Ukraine crisis first ramped up – an inability to speak with one voice.

Figures like the South Carolina senator have sought to outline the most hawkish sentiments possible, often assailing President Biden for being too weak.

Others, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Have shown an unusual level of bipartisan agreement with Biden – so far.

And still others, on the wing of the party identified with former President Trump, have suggested that the US should keep its involvement to a minimum, expressing skepticism about whether vital American interests are really at stake in eastern Europe.

In turn, the issue has once again exposed the fissure between the traditional Republican establishment and the followers of Trump’s Make America Great Again brand.

“Traditionally, Republicans have driven a hard stance against Russia, and so I’m not surprised to see more traditional, conservative Republicans take a stand and being appalled at what some of their colleagues, and Donald Trump, have been pushing,” Olivia Troye told this column.

Troye served in the Trump administration but resigned, and has since become a vigorous critic of the former president.

By contrast, a Republican strategist affiliated with the more pro-Trump, the populist side of the party said GOP voters “want us to be strong but they don’t want us policing the world. They don’t want us intervening unless there is a Direct threat to this country. I don’t think anyone can argue with a straight face that there is anything in Ukraine that is of strategic importance to the United States. “

The divergence of Republican opinion has complicated the party’s political positioning.

That’s especially so because Democrats have for the most part stood united behind the central tenets of President Biden’s position.

Biden’s view is that Russian aggression towards Ukraine needs to be repulsed; that a direct military intervention by the United States is off the table; and that therefore the best remaining option is the toughest possible sanctions and the maximal amount of international unity in enforcing them.

The disunity within the GOP stems at least in part from former President Trump, as it often does.

Trump stoked fresh controversy by praising Putin’s tactical “genius” and “savvy” during the earliest days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Those comments, to his critics, were of a piece with a peculiar history between Trump and Russia that included Kremlin-driven interference in the 2016 presidential election and an almost servile performance by Trump at a 2018 news conference with Putin in Helsinki.

Trump’s recent remarks on the Russian president received an implicit but clear rebuke from McConnell, who responded to the former president’s comments by emphasizing his own view that Putin is “a thug.”

The Ukraine issue also made starker the widening divide between Trump and his former vice president, Mike Pence.

In a speech delivered Friday, Pence said: “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin. There is only room for champions of freedom.”

Trump hasn’t been the only one to take positions that are, at a minimum, discordant with the historical GOP hawkishness toward Russia.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) Suggested before Russia invaded that the United States need not support the idea that Ukraine might one day join NATO.

Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance, the former author, said on a podcast, “I don’t really care what happens in Ukraine one way or another.”

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) Asserted in January that “Russia invading Ukraine is not an immediate threat to the security of the American people, homeland and way of life.”

Since the invasion has actually taken place, there appears to have been a shift.

Hawley called for Putin’s actions to be “met with strong American resolve,” including sanctions on Russia’s energy sector.

Vance, too, released a more nuanced statement, expressing sympathy for the plight of the Ukrainians.

Other conservatives, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have taken their own path. Cruz has for some time been assailing Biden for not mounting earlier sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. But he also blasted Graham for his assassination call, insisting it was “an exceptionally bad idea.”

The White House, from a domestic political perspective, is hardly displeased by the GOP disarray.

Asked about Graham’s comments on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the idea of ​​assassinating Putin “is not the position of the United States government and certainly not a statement you’d hear come from the mouth of anybody working in this administration. . “

Meanwhile, an NPR / Marist poll out Friday suggested Biden appeared to be benefiting from what NPR called “a rally-around-the-Ukrainian-flag moment” in which “a whopping 83 percent of respondents said they support the economic sanctions the US and allies have leveled against Russia. “

For Republicans, still struggling to find a song they can all agree to sing on Ukraine, that’s bad news on a huge international crisis – and it comes just when they thought they had the president on the ropes.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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