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Putin who? At CPAC, few Republicans mention Russian autocrat

Those who did bring up Russia largely blamed Biden for the invasion, a message that could be complicated by praise for Putin from Trump and others.
Image: Mike Pompeo
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla., on February 25, 2022.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. — The annual gathering of the Republican Party’s most conservative members this week took place 9,000 miles from Kyiv, Ukraine, but for some, the distance wasn’t enough. 

Speaker after speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) elided or downplayed references to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine days ago launched a war that drew widespread condemnation from the international community for costing innocent lives with no justification.

As Moscow launched missiles at Ukraine, CPAC speakers were firing away at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his country’s public health restrictions. The agenda had one breakout session devoted to China, but none on Russia, and China was more frequently invoked as a bigger problem for the United States.

The Republicans who did bring up Russia used the opportunity to test-drive a message that blamed President Joe Biden for the conflict, another potential line of attack against Democrats who face an uphill battle in midterm contests to defend their slim majorities in Congress. But that message could be complicated by former President Donald Trump and his acolytes heaping compliments on Putin. 

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview last week called Putin “very savvy, very shrewd” and “elegantly sophisticated.” He added: “I have enormous respect for him.” On stage at CPAC, he test-drove a message blaming Biden for the conflict. 

“We’ve seen a Russian dictator now terrorize the Ukrainian people because America didn’t demonstrate the resolve that we did for the four years prior,” Pompeo said Friday during his speech.

Offstage, however, Pompeo was more reticent, refusing to comment when asked by NBC News about his praise of Putin last week that Russian state TV featured

Pompeo instead changed the subject to his longstanding commitment to fighting communists. Neither Ukraine nor Russia is a communist nation. When pressed, Pompeo still didn’t address the subject, and his security detail physically pushed a reporter aside while another guard grabbed him and yanked him away.

Some Republicans say showing any regard for Putin could boomerang on them and shift the focus away from Biden.

Speaking to a conservative podcast this week, former President Donald Trump also described Putin as “savvy” and called his move to recognize breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine an act of “genius.” 

The day before CPAC began, at a fundraising event in his Mar-a-Lago home Wednesday, Trump told the audience that Putin was “taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions.…  I’d say that’s pretty smart.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who attended the event and said he spoke to Trump at breakfast the following day, told NBC News that he urged Trump to be more cautious.

“Mr. President, this is unfolding in real time and there are more hot spots out there,” Graham said he told Trump. “Let’s put the blame at the feet of the people causing the problem. It’s Putin.”

Politically speaking, some Republicans said, a promising strategy for GOP candidates would be to frame the war in Europe as part of a rolling series of debacles, beginning with the Afghanistan troop withdrawal last summer, which Biden had been unable to master.

“It just continues a narrative that the guy [Biden] is losing control here,” Graham said. “The border is broken, Afghanistan was a debacle, and now the Ukraine. It seems like on his watch all the bad guys are moving the wrong way and his policies are not working.”

Caleb Heimlich, Washington state’s Republican chairman, agreed.

“There absolutely will be an impact on the election as people think about our standing on the world stage and reflect on what happened with the Afghanistan withdrawal last year, which was disastrous and maybe set the stage for this,” he said in an interview.

In addition to blaming what they said was Biden’s dithering over sanctions — the U.S. only began leveling harsh sanctions against Russia after the invasion rather than during the months the Kremlin was amassing troops at Ukraine's border — Republicans at CPAC zeroed in on energy policy. They claimed Democrats’ policy efforts to combat climate change led to a reduction in fossil fuel production in the United States that benefited Putin, who became richer from higher energy prices and the oil and natural gas Russia produces.

One speaker criticized the idea of sending U.S. troops to Ukraine — something Biden has repeatedly said is not on the table — a sign of noninterventionist doves in a GOP that was once the party of hawks when it came to Russia.

And while those who spoke about Russia at CPAC condemned the invasion, they said China was a bigger threat to U.S. interests.

“Let’s be clear, we’ve got two major geo-strategic competitors: China is one and Russia is number two in terms of rank-priority order,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley told reporters Thursday at CPAC. During his speech, Hawley said he would introduce legislation Monday to ramp up U.S. energy production.

Hawley told reporters that Biden “botched” the approach to Russia and faulted Putin for the invasion. When asked about Trump’s remarks calling Putin “smart,” Hawley said only, “Putin thinks he’s smart.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis briefly touched on foreign governments in his Thursday speech by criticizing Covid lockdowns in Canada and Australia but avoided references to the invasion of Ukraine. And Sen. Ted Cruz earned a raucous response from the crowd Thursday when he mentioned Canada’s Trudeau but didn’t mention Putin.

Sen. Marco Rubio on Friday spoke of the need to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

“No matter where you stand on this Ukraine-Russia situation — what we should have done beforehand, what we should do now — the one thing I think everyone can agree on is that the people of Ukraine are inspiring the world,” Rubio said.

Voters aren’t typically moved by events overseas unless U.S. troops are directly involved in the fighting. But the Ukraine crisis could prove an exception. For one, it carries the potential to raise gas prices and sink the financial markets, jeopardizing the life savings Americans have invested in 401(k) plans.

“This is different,” Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, told NBC News. “This brings back memories of World War II. And the implications for the U.S. are economic. People are going to feel the impact of this even if we’re not sending U.S. troops there. So, it does have significant political implications for the U.S.”

Corey Lewandowski, a Republican campaign strategist and Trump confidant, predicted that Republican Senate candidates can notch victories in competitive states this year by making Ukraine the “determinative issue.”

"These four incumbent Democrat senators now have to go and defend the Joe Biden administration’s policies on Ukraine," Lewandowski said in an interview, referring to Democratic senators running for re-election in Nevada, Arizona, New Hampshire and Georgia.

At her daily briefing earlier this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that a partisan response to the Ukraine invasion deviates from a long tradition of showing unity in the face of an unprovoked attack on a nation by a U.S. foe. 

“There is a long history … of standing up to the efforts of any country to seize the territory of another country; standing up for efforts by the United States to rally global support against inappropriate and illegal actions by another country,” Psaki said.