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Russia's invasion of Ukraine highlights a moral failing — and vulnerability — of the GOP

The conflict highlights the party's craven hypocrisy around its inability to take on Trump and their favorite right-wing media personalities for their troublesome ongoing affinity for Putin.
President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.
Then President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

The Republican Party doesn't only have a Donald Trump problem. It also has a Vladimir Putin problem.

As the GOP tries to politically weaponize the Ukraine conflict to question President Joe Biden's leadership, it also spotlights the party's craven hypocrisy around its inability to take on Trump for his troublesome record with Russia and ongoing affinity for Putin. This is not only a political vulnerability for Republicans, but it's also a moral failing.

Republicans cannot escape Trump's role, or the role of their favorite right-wing media personalities, in carrying Putin's water for years.

No matter how many statements they put out condemning Putin's invasion of Ukraine or how many blue and yellow flag lapel pins they wear, the Republicans cannot escape Trump's role, or the role of their favorite right-wing media personalities, in carrying Putin's water for years.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., rightfully called out what she dubbed the "Putin wing" of the Republican Party recently in response to pro-Russian rhetoric prominently featured on Fox News shows by a former Trump Defense Department official. Besides Trump, he's one of several who have amplified Putin's propaganda.

In the days leading up to the invasion, Tucker Carlson was openly critical of opposition to Putin and downplayed the conflict, calling it a "border dispute." After Russia started bombing Ukrainian cities, he tried to backpedal by blaming Putin for what "could become a world war." But he's now shifted to pushing QAnon conspiracy theories, boosted by Russian propaganda, suggesting U.S. involvement in nonexistent Ukrainian biolabs as a justification for Russia's unprovoked assault on Ukraine.

Other than Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who is retiring, I'm unaware of other Republican elected officials boycotting his show or even publicly condemning Carlson’s Putin-friendly messaging.

You wouldn't know that based on the bellicose talk coming from Russia hawks within the party since Putin invaded his sovereign neighbor igniting widespread condemnation from the Western world. Many Republicans have returned to their more traditional foreign policy posture of full-throated support for NATO and calls for tougher actions against Russian aggression. Sounds great now. But where was that during the Trump years when he repeatedly undermined NATO's purpose and threatened America's role in the strategic alliance?

It's known that Trump's fixation with Russia has a long well-documented history dating back to the mid-80s. He sought not only to become a plenipotentiary ambassador to Moscow in 1985 (true story, according to Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Bernard Lown), but he's also been unabashed about his desire to build a Trump Tower there for decades.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Trump Organization was allegedly prepared to give Putin a $50 million penthouse in the tower if a deal was struck. Rudy Giuliani claimed Trump was unaware of the offer, but former Trump fixer Michael Cohen testified both before the House Oversight Committee and in court in 2018 that he discussed the ongoing Moscow negotiations with the then-candidate Trump.

In 2013, when asked about funding for Trump's golf courses during the Great Recession, Eric Trump allegedly bragged to a sports writer, "Well, we don't rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia." Eric denied the claim. Trump sold a Palm Beach mansion for $95 million, more than double what he paid, to a Russian oligarch in an eyebrow raising deal in 2008.

So, as we can see, Trump's questionable financial ties to Russia are extensive. And that was all before he became president. The GOP still gave him a pass.

During his presidency, Trump's affinity for Putin was even more reprehensible. His litany of transgressions involving Putin and Russia is too lengthy to list here, but many would argue his 2018 Helsinki trip, during which he repeated an authoritarian trope calling the free press the true "enemy of the people," and a joint press conference with Putin, where he threw U.S. intelligence agencies under the bus in favor of Putin's word over theirs, was his worst.

At the time, Sen. John McCain of Arizona called it "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in recent memory," and said Trump had "abased himself … abjectly before a tyrant." Unfortunately, that behavior has continued on to the present day. When Putin formally recognized the independence of two Moscow-backed breakaway regions in the eastern part of Ukraine in the runup to his assault on the country, Trump once again couldn't help himself and affectionately called Putin "savvy" and a "genius."

Some still bent over backward to avoid directly criticizing Trump for his comments.

Even though many Republicans vehemently disagreed with that characterization of Putin and found Trump's comments unacceptable, even as bombs fell on innocent Ukrainians at the hands of Putin's army, some still bent over backward to avoid directly criticizing Trump for his comments.

For example, Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a self-proclaimed Russian hawk, was asked repeatedly by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" to condemn Trump's praise of Putin. He wouldn't. Why not? The only plausible explanation is that he doesn't want the ire of Trump's loyal base aimed at him. It's no secret he has his eyes on a higher office. Why else take such a pusillanimous position?

It doesn't end there. Savvy politicians like Cotton know Trump's bromance with Putin is a credibility albatross. So what does Cotton do? During a recent speech at the Reagan Presidential Library, he tried to compare Trump with Ronald Reagan.

"​​Some can't imagine how the same party sent both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump to the White House. They contend that our party must somehow choose between the legacies of these two men. I disagree. For all their differences in temperament and style, there's a deeper continuity in the beliefs of our 40th and our 45th presidents," Cotton said.

When I saw his comments, I thought, "Again with this? Nice try." Anytime Republicans trot out the Reagan comparisons, it's merely to deflect from the disastrous Trump record. Don't pay attention to the man behind the Iron Curtain and the American president who desperately wants to be his BFF.

Short of a few superficial similarities like both being creatures of Hollywood and former Democrats, Trump and Reagan couldn't be more different. Any other comparisons of their presidencies are laughable, especially their approaches to foreign policy.

During his 1985 State of the Union, Reagan declared that America's "mission was to nourish and defend freedom and democracy" and to stand by our democratic allies, particularly those who defied Soviet-supported aggression. This became known as the Reagan Doctrine. Does that sound anything like Trump?

Lest we forget, Trump tried to withhold crucial military assistance, which Congress had already approved, from Ukraine in exchange for a sham political investigation into then-candidate Biden and his son Hunter. It's a move that led to his first impeachment. And every Republican, sans Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, voted to acquit him. Many of those very same Republicans who are cheering on Ukraine now would like us to forget that fact — but they can't have it both ways.

At a recent RNC major donor event in New Orleans, Mike Pence said there was no room for "Putin apologists" within the party. I'm not so sure. That same crowd enthusiastically applauded Trump and laughed at his bizarre praise of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, when he joked about wishing his staff was as subservient as his.

As long as Republicans embrace Trump as the titular head of the party, given his support for illiberalism and autocratic ideals both home and abroad, their pro-Ukrainian democracy and anti-Putin pronouncements ring hollow. No matter how many times Republicans try to claim Trump was "tough on Putin," it's simply a tactic to try to whitewash history. No amount of pro-Putin revisionism can fix that. So stop with the Reagan comparisons. It reeks of hypocrisy, and Republicans should be held to account for it.

This presents a political opportunity for Democrats heading into the midterms. Whether they seize it or not remains to be seen.