WASHINGTON — Russia's war on Ukraine is testing former President Donald Trump's sway with Republican officials. Most of them are treating him the way he's treating Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin: seeking distance but refusing to condemn.
While Trump inched closer to criticizing Putin's invasion of Ukraine Saturday night, he continued to portray the Russian leader in a positive light. "It happens to be a man that is just driven, he’s driven to put it together,” Trump said at a political rally in South Carolina.
That followed a Thursday Fox News interview in which host Sean Hannity tried — and failed — to get Trump to offer anything but praise for Putin.
The war in Ukraine has created a rare break between Trump and many Republican elites who fell into lockstep with him during his presidency but now see moral and political imperatives in calling Putin out as a villain. Yet there are hard limits to how far they will go in crossing Trump.
"It suggests a lack of political fear that they previously would have had," former Florida Rep. David Jolly, who served in the House as a Republican but has since left the party, said. "Many will criticize Putin — not all — but they are not going to take the moment they have to turn around and criticize Donald Trump because they don’t need to. It would be an unforced error."
When former Vice President Mike Pence said last week that there was "no room" in the GOP for "Putin apologists" — a thinly veiled swipe at Trump — he did so at a closed-door fundraiser. And he didn't use his political patron's name.
Even going that far is "an indication that Mike Pence is not the future of the GOP," Jolly said. "Any separation from Donald Trump is a political liability."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, has called for Putin to be assassinated and introduced a resolution this month accusing the Russian president of war crimes. But rather than reprimanding Trump for calling Putin "a genius," Graham cast the remark as "a mistake."
The handle-with-care treatment of Trump comes as he has isolated himself from most Republicans and most Americans when it comes to Putin. Nearly 90 percent of Americans have a "very unfavorable" view of Putin after the invasion of Ukraine.
Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who has been a leading Trump critic for years, said GOP lawmakers could not wait to take cues from the former president after the invasion began.
"Once those images started coming across American televisions and the American people were just mortified by what they were seeing and wanted something to be done," he said, Republican lawmakers were "not going to sit there and wait for the guy who is Putin’s right hand man to get on the right side of history."
But Steele predicted any split will be short-lived and will not drain influence from Trump within the party.
"Candidates aren’t going to back off of Donald Trump just because he’s licking Putin’s boot," Steele said.
Rather than Trump suffering for his proximity to Putin, one former House Republican leadership aide said, there could be damage to the handful of GOP elected officials close to him who have articulated praise for Putin or criticism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
"I think there is a real divide between virtually the entire Republican Party and those most slavish adherents to Donald Trump," said the former aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid bringing unwanted controversy to his current employer.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., recently spoke to a white nationalist group that supports Putin, and Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., called Zelenskyy "a thug."
There is a possibility that Trump's isolation on Ukraine could be part of a more serious political problem for him if it becomes part of a pattern.
"Taking a position that is soft on Putin is unexplainable to your typical red-blooded American Republican," said one former senior Senate Republican aide. "Maybe because he's taken a position on Putin that's so soft, maybe that reduces his influence over the party."
But the aide said Trump isn't going to lose any influence so long as the GOPs political base is squarely behind him.
"Little by little, the more he does things that are anathema to that base," the former aide said, "all of those little things together add up over time, and you could get to the point where you have Republican base voters who look at him and say 'that's not the guy I rooted for when he came down the golden escalator in 2015.'"
Steele said that won't happen.
"I would not even begin to buy into the idea that this is going to lead to some major tear inside the GOP," he said. "They are too tied to this man."