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Trump's base splinters over Ukraine

At one recent rally, some of Trump's supporters said Putin should have free rein, while others advocated sending in U.S. troops.
Former President Donald Trump dances Saturday as he leaves the stage during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce, Ga. Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

COMMERCE, Ga. — As former President Donald Trump tries to refine his message about Russia's war against Ukraine, his base is splintered over the question of America's engagement in Eastern Europe.

"It's not our business," Peggy Bright, 57, said shortly before Trump spoke to an unusually restless and muted crowd here Saturday night. It makes sense to her, she said, that Russian President Vladimir Putin would want to push back against NATO expansion.

"I'm not a Putin lover, but if it was here in America, I would expect our president to take care of our people, just like I would expect him to take care of their people," said Bright, who works at a local bookbinding facility. "I understand what Putin is doing."

Bright's sentiments reflect those of one wing of the Trump base — as well as the former president's early praise of Putin — but they are not universal. In conversations with Trump voters in and around this town, about halfway between Atlanta and Greenville, South Carolina, the spectrum of thinking ran from giving Putin free rein, on one end, to sending in U.S. troops.

That may help explain the inconsistency of Trump's message when Western democracies have united to condemn Putin, impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia and arm Ukraine.

All along, Trump has blamed Biden for Russia's aggression, but he has stopped lauding Putin. On Saturday, Trump called the war "Putin's heinous attack."

“Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, Joe Biden totally failed to deter Russia’s disgraceful invasion of Ukraine,” Trump said. “All of those people are dead. Putin’s heinous attack on a proud and sovereign nation shocks the conscience of every person of goodwill.”

Biden, whose approval rating just dropped to a low of 40 percent in an NBC News poll, has sought to escalate pressure on Putin without committing U.S. forces to a broader war. Just hours before Trump spoke at a drag-racing track in northeast Georgia, Biden, addressing European leaders in Warsaw, Poland, appeared to call for regime change in Russia.

Although Biden's aides scrambled to say he was not articulating a new U.S policy, his words — Putin "cannot remain in power" — may prove indelible.

Some Trump supporters would welcome a stronger U.S. response.

Alina Roberts, a Trump voter who was born in Latvia and lives in Atlanta, said at Saturday's rally that Putin cannot be stopped without direct U.S. intervention.

“I love America, love our troops, but I think we need to send them there,” said Roberts, 22. “If we don’t really fight him — as an individual, if you know what I mean — it’s never going to end until he gets what he wants in its entirety.”

Asked whether she meant the U.S. must remove Putin from power, she said, “That’s exactly what I’m implying.”

In interviews, Trump supporters here largely voiced agreement with the former president's assertion that Putin would not have invaded had Trump been elected to a second term. They also criticized Biden from both angles — saying he has done too much and too little.

There is little common ground about what should be done now, and some Trump backers revealed a deep ambivalence.

"It’s hard to say at this point whether we should be more involved or less involved," said Melanie Collier, 60, a consultant who plans special events. "Of course, everybody’s got compassion for the people of Ukraine who are involved in this in an innocent way, but we still don’t know exactly what’s going on with the leadership."

Her comments reflect the Trump world's long-running suspicion of Ukraine's political class. Trump was impeached for withholding congressionally approved aid to Ukraine to get President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to announce an investigation into Biden and Biden's son Hunter.

Collier added that she is "starting to lean toward 'hold back a bit.'" But she also said that Putin "has gone way off the rails" and that "he's got to be stopped."

Ron Smith, who traveled two hours from Sylva, North Carolina, to see Trump, was similarly torn.

While "Ukraine's not a perfect country," he said, "we're a beacon of hope, and the whole world looks at us." He said Biden was too slow to send arms to Ukraine but also that "we don't need American blood on that soil."

Even providing weapons is too much for some Trump backers.

"We should sit back and let them see what they can do on their own," said Chad Gailey, who runs a car service shop in Henry County, southeast of Atlanta. "That's our dollars, not theirs. That's too much — dropping tanks and guns and things like that. I'm not against helping them, but, at the same time, that's not our fight."

Gailey said he is worried that "possibly" the U.S. could get drawn further into war.

"Putin as a person, honestly, I think he is a strong president, much like Trump," he said. "We can’t be sending billions of dollars when we need it here."

Andrew Johnson, 33, who works at a distribution center in Maysville, not far from the rally site, said the U.S. has a responsibility to help Ukraine.

"We kind of forced the hand of Russia to do it, so, I mean, we have no choice but to protect them now," he said, referring to NATO's openness to admitting Ukraine. "How are you going to pursue something and then leave them out to dry? They're human, too, regardless of whether they're American or not."

It is difficult to pin down one policy preference of the Trump base — much less an entire approach — when it comes to the Russian war in Ukraine.

Some of the most influential players in Trump's world, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have been heavily critical of Ukraine and shown enough sympathy for Putin to be amplified by Russia's propaganda machine. But many leading Republicans, including Trump allies in Congress, are ardent in their support for Ukraine and their antipathy toward Russia.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump's most loyal friends in Congress, has called for Putin to be assassinated.

At least one Trump voter here expressed relief that Trump is not in charge as the U.S. responds to the war in Europe.

"I’m glad he’s not president now," said Brenda Watkins, 77, a retired schoolteacher from nearby Madison County who chose not to attend Saturday's rally.

"I’m terribly discouraged and disturbed about what’s going on in the world," Watkins said. "I don’t think President Biden is handling it well, but I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable if President Trump were in there, either. I hate to say that."