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Republican divide over Ukraine sets up major 2024 clash

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
A Ukrainian sniper moves to a fighting position in a frontline trench outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine
A Ukrainian sniper moves to a fighting position in a frontline trench outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 5, 2023.John Moore / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — If it’s Wednesday ... President Biden, in Las Vegas, discusses lowering prescription drug costs. ... The Senate votes on Eric Garcetti’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to India, per NBC’s Frank Thorp. ... Federal judge in Texas holds hearing on lawsuit seeking to overturn FDA approval of pill used in medication abortions. ... And Paul Vallas is outspending Brandon Johnson by almost 2-to-1 in upcoming Chicago mayoral contest.

But first: The war in Ukraine is shaping up to be the most consequential debate so far in the early 2024 Republican presidential field — since a commander-in-chief sets American foreign policy and defense policy. 

And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ position has produced the situation where both GOP presidential frontrunners are now skeptical (if not critical) of the United States aiding Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Former President Donald Trump doesn’t believe opposing Russia in Ukraine is a vital American national interest, according to questions Fox News’ Tucker Carlson asked declared and potential 2024 Republican candidates. 

DeSantis agrees with Trump: “While the U.S. has many vital national interests … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” he told Fox.

Ditto South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who said the war in Ukraine “should be Europe’s fight, not ours.”

(This appears to be the majority view among Republicans, with our recent NBC News poll showing 63% of them opposing Congress providing more funding and weapons to Ukraine.)

But taking the opposite position is former Trump VP Mike Pence, who said “there’s no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party,” warning Russia would attack NATO allies if it isn’t stopped in Ukraine.

And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley concurs: “America is far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory, including avoiding a wider war.”

Trump’s position isn’t surprising. (Remember that Helsinki press conference? Or that phone call to Zelenskyy appearing to tie military aid to investigating the Bidens?)

It’s DeSantis’ view, however, that’s getting more scrutiny from both GOP lawmakers and his potential 2024 GOP rivals.

“This is not a territorial conflict. This is a war of aggression,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said about DeSantis’ stance, per NBC’s Capitol Hill team.

“President Trump is right when he says Gov. DeSantis is copying him,” Haley said in a statement. “Republicans deserve a choice, not an echo.”

Headline of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … $2.6 million

That’s how much has been spent on the airwaves in Chicago’s mayoral runoff since since the first round of the election in February. 

Former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas has outspent Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson by almost a 2-to-1 margin — $1.7 million to $900,000. And Vallas has a similar edge in additional airtime booked before the April 4 runoff (obviously, that number can change).  

Read more about the spending disparity on the Meet the Press Blog

Other numbers to know:

6%: The annual rate of inflation year-over-year in February, per new data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Tuesday. 

0: The number of documents the FBI told NBC News were responsive to its Freedom of Information Act request about former President Donald Trump’s assertions he “sent in the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys” to stop “ballot theft” in Florida during the 2018 election.

31 million: The number of background checks handled by the National Instant Background Check system last year, per FBI data. President Joe Biden issued a new executive order on Tuesday aimed at increasing background checks

10,000: The number of workers that Meta will lay off, according to a letter from CEO Mark Zuckerberg made public Tuesday. 

14: The number of governors who sent a letter to multiple pharmacy chains asking them to detail their plans to dispense mifepristone, a legal drug that helps induce medication abortions, amid legal and political threats over the drug.

17: The number of Senate Democrats calling on Walgreens specifically to detail its plan to restrict access to legal medication abortion pills.

1.4%: The portion of employees of Silicon Valley Bank the company quietly laid off in January, two months before it collapsed. 

Eyes on 2024: Ready for Ron

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet announced that he’s running for the GOP presidential nomination, but some of his former House colleagues are hoping he jumps in — even though they say he was “a bit of a loner.”

NBC News’ Scott Wong spoke to more than a dozen House Republicans about DeSantis’ six-year stint in Congress, and they described DeSantis as a quiet and standoffish colleague. But they praised his work as governor, and hope he runs for the White House.

That includes moderate Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who represents a district President Joe Biden would have won in 2020 had the new congressional lines been in place.

“So he’s winning swing voters, Democrat voters. That’s what we need at the top, because that’s what it takes to win the presidency,” Bacon said of DeSantis. “And we’ve got to have someone who can win suburbs and vie for the middle.”

Former President Donald Trump’s campaign and a pro-Trump PAC are also preparing for a DeSantis run, prepping an “expansive opposition research file” on the Florida governor, Politico reports. The Trump PAC is focusing on DeSantis’ record as an assistant U.S. Attorney. 

In other campaign news: 

Heading to Dallas: Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is meeting next month with donors in Dallas, Texas, stoking speculation that Youngkin is weighing a presidential run, the Washington Post reports.  

No thanks: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., ruled out a presidential bid in 2024, telling radio host Hugh Hewitt, “I don’t have any plans to run for anything this year because, you know, timing is everything in life and we’ve got a lot of stuff going on.” 

Will he?: The Daily Beast reports that former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke isn’t ruling out a Senate bid against Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.  

Won’t he?: Politico writes about Pennsylvania Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s super fans who want to see him run for Senate this cycle. 

No backup plan: If Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., doesn’t run for re-election, Democrats don’t have any other potential candidates who could win the ruby-red state, campaign strategists tell National Journal.

Debate dust up: Chicago mayoral hopefuls Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson went on the defensive during Tuesday’s debate about previous comments that have dogged their campaigns — Johnson’s comments about the “defund the police” movement and Vallas’ statement about freeing up police officers from policies that were “handcuffing” them, per The Chicago Tribune

Santos signaling: New York Republican Rep. George Santos filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission saying he’ll run again, meeting the FEC’s deadline to announce or disavow his previous fundraising (but the filing isn’t an absolute declaration he’ll run again).

Harris heads to Iowa: Vice President Kamala Harris travels to Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday for a reproductive rights event, per NBC News’ Peter Alexander. 

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

A Russian jet harassed and then collided with a U.S. drone over the Black Sea, according to U.S. European Command. Later, Russian officials warned the U.S. against “hostile” activity near its borders, referring to the incident.  

Officials in China criticized the U.S., Australia and the U.K. over their new deal on nuclear submarines.

Ohio’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit in federal court against Norfolk Southern, alleging the company’s train derailment in February caused environmental and economic damages to the state.

A group of Senate and congressional Democrats is unveiling new legislation aimed at restoring bank regulations that were rolled back during the Trump administration, which the group of legislators say could have prevented the failure of Silicon Valley Bank.