Republicans Are Split Over Ukraine, Threatening a Rare Bipartisan Consensus
Some GOPers think Biden is doing too little to counter Russia. The far right thinks he’s doing too much.
President Donald Trump may have left Washington, but his pro-Russia views persist in at least part of the Republican Party.
On Monday, Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski’s New Jersey office began fielding phone calls from constituents who argued that Russia is only seeking peace by massing forces on the Ukrainian border and that America should stay out of the conflict. Several callers mentioned Fox host Tucker Carlson, who has suggested that the United States should be supporting Moscow instead of Kyiv.
“My district director told me she’d talked to four people in the last hour who called in about this, and there were other calls. The phone was ringing while she was on the phone with those people,” said Malinowski, who served as the assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration. “I’ve been aware that this has been Tucker Carlson’s obsession for the last few weeks, but it was the first time I had seen my own constituents parroting his words back to me.”
The calls demonstrate a split in how the Republican party is responding to Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s border. While many Republicans on Capitol Hill are criticizing Biden for being too weak on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, far-right members of the party are painting Russia as the victim and lambasting Bidenfor provoking Moscow. This evokes similar rhetoric to Trump, who has publicly sided with Putin over the U.S. government and said that he and the Russian leader get along.
For more moderate members of the GOP, it’s “uncomfortable” to address these pro-Russia views that are lingering after Trump is out of office, Malinowski said.
“I’ve raised the Tucker Carlson issue with some of my Republican colleagues who are very strong on Ukraine. A couple of them claim not to know that this is happening, which I find hard to believe,” he said. “It seems to me that a bunch of them are in denial, [and] that acknowledging the existence of this train in their party makes them very uncomfortable.”
There’s bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill that Ukraine’s sovereignty is important, but disagreement between the parties about the best way for America to support it. Democrats, led by Biden, have pushed for diplomacy and imposing harsher sanctions if Putin pushes further into Ukraine, but many mainstream Republicans are slamming Biden for not doing enough, and for not imposing consequences now.
Despite these differences, lawmakers have so far been able to work together. Members of both parties traveled to Ukraine on a congressional delegation earlier this month, and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will lead a second bipartisan trip this week. The Biden administration has also conducted “dozens” of briefings and meetings with lawmakers from both parties over the last month, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
But outside Congress, right-wing Republicans such as Carlson are telling large audiences that the United States should not risk starting a war with Russia by supporting Ukraine.
"Why is it disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?" Carlson said on his show on Monday night. "They're both foreign countries that don't care anything about the United States. Kind of strange."
This echoes the isolationist views of Trump, who said during the campaign in 2015 that Putin is “highly respected” and that it was a “great honor” to be complimented by the Russian leader.
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly in 2017, when pressed on Putin’s record of extrajudicial killings. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Malinowski says he’s worried this message will disrupt the remaining sliver of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
“We’ve been clinging to a fragile unity in the Congress about Ukraine. Republicans and Democrats basically agree about which side we should be on, but I'm worried that this message is going out to a big chunk of the Republican base every night,” he said. “I hope that more of my Republican colleagues will confront this train in their party.”
Some of them already have. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, appeared on Carlson’s show in November and argued that America should provide weapons and intelligence to Ukraine, an “incredibly important” strategic ally. This provoked a contentious exchange with Carlson, who questioned the congressman about why American troops should risk their lives defending Ukraine, even though Turner never suggested putting American boots on the ground.
“Why would we take Ukraine’s side and not Russia’s side? It’s a sincere question. If you’re looking at America’s perspective, why? Who’s got the energy reserves? Who’s the major player in world affairs? Who’s the potential counterbalance against China, which is the actual threat?” Carlson said. “Why would we take Ukraine’s side? Why wouldn’t we be on Russia’s side? I’m totally confused.”