WASHINGTON — As congressional Republican leaders push President Joe Biden to act more forcefully to punish Vladimir Putin for sending troops into Ukraine, former GOP President Donald Trump and some of his prominent allies have been praising the Russian leader’s style of power.
The fissures point to a growing divide in the Republican Party, between traditional foreign policy hawks who have advocated for a more confrontational U.S. posture to the Russian strongman and a Trump-aligned “MAGA” faction that has expressed some sympathy for Putin's tactics or described them as effective.
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful,” Trump told a conservative podcaster in an interview published Tuesday.
"I said, 'How smart is that?' And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. ... We could use that on our southern border," the former president said, describing Putin as “a guy who’s very savvy” and whom he knows “very, very well.”
On the same day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a very different tone by tearing into “Putin’s aggression” and urging Biden to take quick and aggressive action, warning of “catastrophic” consequences if the West failed to challenge Putin.
“This should begin, but not end, with devastating sanctions against the Kremlin and its enablers. The President should waste no time in using his extensive existing authorities to impose these costs,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement.
In a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 62 percent of Republicans and GOP-leading independents said Putin is “a stronger leader” than Biden, while an additional 25 percent declined to choose between the American and Russian presidents.
The shifting sentiments on the right have put ambitious Republican politicians in a complicated position and revealed divisions in how they approach the crisis. Some are striking a clear anti-Putin note, while others praise his abilities. Some GOP candidates in the 2022 election are trying to avoid the fray by saying they’re simply not concerned about Ukraine.
'I don't really care'
After Biden announced a set of sanctions targeting Russia’s banks and sovereign debt, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said the president’s actions were “too little, too late,” arguing that sanctions should have been in place before Putin sent in troops and criticized his “flagrant disregard for the rule of law.”
Top House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, called Putin’s actions “reprehensible,” blaming it on “appeasement” and lack of “strong action” by the administration.
“The U.S. and our allies must now make the Putin regime pay for this aggression,” they said.
In the 2022 elections, GOP candidates are all over the place.
J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate in a crowded Ohio Senate primary, said on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s show that the conflict doesn’t concern him. “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”
His rival, Jane Timken, took a different approach, issuing a statement Monday calling for “crushing economic sanctions against Russia and vital military aid for Ukraine.”
In the Pennsylvania Senate primary, GOP candidate Mehmet Oz sided with the pro-Ukraine wing of the party, saying: “Putin is a thug who has violated the sovereignty of a free country, and Biden’s weak standing on the world stage is inviting further aggressions. The U.S. and our allies must take immediate actions to cripple his regime.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a Trump critic who he is targeting for defeat this fall, responded Tuesday: “Former President Trump’s adulation of Putin today — including calling him a ‘genius’ — aids our enemies. Trump’s interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States of America.”
'Not Russian talking points'
Conservative media has been equally divided.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board issued grave warnings that Putin’s ambitions could “topple the U.S.-led international order” unless the West rallies to its defense.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has for weeks been leading the charge against taking action to stop Russia, even as some of his colleagues have expressed the opposite position by attacking Biden for not doing enough to deter Moscow.
Bannon and pro-Trump commentator Jack Posobiec praised Putin’s pugilistic speech on their podcast, while Gateway Pundit, a popular hub of pro-Trump conspiracy theories and news, downplayed Russia’s aggression. “Ukraine was part of Russia for more than 300 years," the site declared. “This is not Russian talking points.”
Right-wing personality Candace Owens urged her 3 million Twitter followers to read Putin's speech if they want to know “what’s *actually* going on in Russia and Ukraine” and blamed the U.S. for the conflict. “WE are at fault,” she tweeted.
Trump, meanwhile, sent a statement to his email list Tuesday with a single link to a story on RT.com, the website of the Kremlin-backed Russian television network.
The burgeoning sympathy for Putin’s style in parts of the conservative movement could affect how ambitious Republicans position themselves for high office, including the White House.
Last month Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who is rumored to have presidential ambitions, told Fox News that Putin is “a very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts.”
“He knows how to use power. We should respect that,” he said.