IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Russia crisis exposes deep divide Trump created in GOP foreign policy

Congressional leaders want to paint Biden as weak on Russia, while Tucker Carlson is trying to depict him as the aggressor.
Image: Russia launches military drill with over 10,000 soldiers near Ukraine's border
A Russian military unit during exercises in Rostov last week.Russian Defence Ministry / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — During the day, the Republican National Committee sends press releases slamming President Joe Biden’s “weakness” in the face of Russian provocation against Ukraine. But at night, Tucker Carlson tells his millions of Fox News viewers that Biden is the one needlessly provoking Russia, echoing Kremlin talking points.

A conservative voter might receive a fundraising email one day from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem warning that the U.S. is getting “pushed around by Russia,” then receive one the next day from a Senate candidate in Missouri, Eric Greitens, warning about “bloodthirsty Washington elites" and their "warmongering” against Russia.

And while the party's congressional leaders say Biden is being too timid with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., wants to impeach Biden for “threatening war with nuclear Russia.” 

The mixed messages reflect a deeper division over foreign policy inside the Trumpified conservative movement, with more established elected leaders sticking to the familiar hawkishness of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, while a newer brand of America Firsters say voters are sick of being the world’s police and want to focus on problems at home.

“Most Republicans in Congress are totally solid on Ukraine. They want us to stand by this country, they understand the threat that Russia poses,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former State Department official who recently returned from a bipartisan congressional trip to Ukraine. “But they’re beginning to feel this pressure percolating from their base because he (Carlson) is the guy that speaks to more Republicans every day than anyone else in America.”

Image: Civilians Continue Combat Training With Kyiv Territorial Defence Units
Civilians participate in a defense training session in Kyiv last week.Chris McGrath / Getty Images

A Democratic aide familiar with ongoing sanctions talks in Congress said negotiators are navigating internal fears of Republicans from “red MAGA-hat-wearing states” facing pressure about confronting Russia.

“Crossing the almighty Tucker Carlson is a hard thing,” the aide said. “The pressures from the MAGA universe are strong.” 

Trump-aligned senators are still calling for more aid to Ukraine and a tougher line on Moscow.

But on the campaign trail and on many of the biggest platforms in conservative media, opinion leaders are questioning the decades-old Washington consensus that the U.S. needs to throw its weight around to contain forces like Putin and promote democracy abroad.

“Non-interventionism is the future of the Republican Party, and we’re not going back,” said Anthony Sabatini, a Florida state representative running for Congress in a key battleground district as a MAGA firebrand. “One of his (former President Donald Trump’s) great successes was he reformed the party to be a party of peace.”

Sabatini blamed Republican “neocons” and hawkish Democrats alike for bogging down the U.S. in foreign fiascos like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, saying voters want to focus on issues at home.

While no one is Washington is seriously talking about going to war with Russia over Ukraine, some on the right oppose even heavy sanctions on Moscow since it could raise the price of gas for American consumers.

“We as elected officials in the United States should be saying, how does this affect America and most importantly the middle class?" Sabatini said. "There’s really nothing to be gained here and only things to lose."

Carlson has led the charge, but he's being echoed by other conservative media figures, like fellow Fox News host Dan Bongino, Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk and conservative influencer Candace Owens, along with leading conservative Senate candidates like Nevada’s Adam Laxalt, Ohio’s J.D. Vance and Arizona’s Blake Masters.

Their views are sometimes laced with "deep state" conspiratorial thinking, with Donald Trump Jr. telling Fox News' Sean Hannity last week that American intelligence agencies might be “lying to us to try to instigate us getting into another war.”

He and others have suggested that Biden’s interest in defending Ukraine is somehow related to his son’s former business interests in the country. 

“The D.C. elites who want war should volunteer to lay down their lives first,” said Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who resigned the governorship of Missouri in 2018 amidst scandal and is now looking for a comeback in his Senate bid.

It’s the kind of rhetoric historically more familiar on the anti-war left, especially during the Iraq War era.

The libertarian right has long had an anti-interventionist strain going back at least to presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. But until Trump, they were kept far from power in the Reagan-conservative coalition that regarded national security as one of its three essential legs.

Trump himself, whose heterodox foreign policy defies a coherent doctrine, has been difficult to pin down. A two-sentence statement he released last week said only that "what’s happening with Russia and Ukraine would never have happened under the Trump Administration."

That's left a vacuum in which Republican doves insist they’re embracing his America First agenda on Ukraine while GOP hawks say, no, they’re the ones acting on his desire for a strong America.

“Carlson is alone on this. President Trump isn’t with him on this one. No one was tougher on Russia than Donald Trump,” Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield said on his show Monday, adding that Carlson is "right on so many things. We’re almost always in lock step. But this one, not so much."

Foreign policy rarely dominates domestic politics, but Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Trump's attempts to pressure Ukraine to generate political dirt on Biden — which lead to his first impeachment — cast the current standoff in an unusually partisan light.

It's flipped traditional expectations about partisan foreign policy on its head, with Democratic senators sometimes sounding more hawkish than their GOP counterparts during joint interviews.

International leaders associated with Trump, like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, have made allies uncomfortable by maintaining warm relations with Moscow as it threatens Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — whom Carlson praised during a series of broadcasts from Hungary — traveled to Moscow Tuesday to meet with Putin, even though Hungary is a NATO member.

Michael Caputo, who was a Cold War veteran and adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin before becoming a top Trump adviser, said he was personally “torn” over what the U.S. should do in Ukraine, especially since he has family in the country.

“I’m an old anti-communist. I served in the U.S. Army at the end of the Cold War. I worked in the trenches of the Reagan doctrine, on the ground in Central America against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas,” he said, but added that Ukraine made mistakes that got it into this mess. 

“I appreciate the sentimentality of being anti-Russian three generations later," he said. "They’re certainly not our friend, but they’re no existential threat like Communist China."