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Opinion GOP humoring of Trump’s praise of Putin sinks to absurd new lows

President Donald Trump attends a 2019 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The invasion of Ukraine has presented Republicans with a vexing conundrum. How can they express horror and condemnation — which no doubt are sincerely felt — over Vladimir Putin’s actions while avoiding taking a position on Donald Trump’s praise of the Russian leader, let alone on Trump’s long history of kowtowing to him?

The solutions Republicans have hatched to this problem usefully illuminate the range of acceptable opinion in the party, and the constraints on it, at a moment when many Republicans still see Trump as essential to the party’s future.

The Post has a remarkable new overview of quotes from Republicans about the situation. The story is essentially that Trump’s praise of Putin has left him isolated, now that many Republicans are condemning the invasion, even as Republicans avoid faulting Trump directly for this.

What’s also notable, however, is how Republicans are finding new sweet spots that allow them to condemn Putin while also vaguely retaining fidelity to the underlying worldview that Trump’s praise of Putin reflects.

On Feb. 22, White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed former president Donald Trump’s comments after he called Russia’s move on Ukraine “smart.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump has publicly praised Putin’s moves as “smart” and “savvy” and as “genius,” and he has reportedly also lavished private praise on Putin. Before this, of course, Trump accepted Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and wielded U.S. military aid as corrupt leverage against Ukraine even as it pleaded for help against Russian aggression.

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Now that this aggression has become a horrifying reality, very few Republicans have condemned Trump for any of this. But even more notable is that, while they are condemning Putin, they’re also finding ways to cast this as somehow the Trumpist position.

Criticizing Putin while blaming Biden

One way Republicans are accomplishing this is to condemn Putin’s invasion while blaming Biden for it. Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), a member of the House GOP leadership, issued a statement ripping Putin as an “authoritarian dictator” but spent far more time attacking Biden’s “weakness.”

Other Republicans have made similar claims, mostly by arguing that Biden should have imposed sanctions earlier. Some have even suggested this wouldn’t have happened under Trump.

This is absurd. We can legitimately debate how sanctions should have been imposed, but given all we’ve seen, no one can seriously pretend earlier sanctions would have likely dissuaded the invasion. And as Damon Linker notes, Putin didn’t invade Ukraine before almost surely because Trump was also committed to Putin’s goal of weakening NATO.

But here’s the key point: Blaming Biden’s weakness also obscures Trump’s alignment with Putin on the bigger question of whether Ukrainian sovereignty and the international order should be defended in the face of Putin’s threats to it. Republicans are erasing what Trump got spectacularly wrong and replacing it with an account in which Trump was and remains eternally strong, which is faithful to Trumpism at its most base level.

Criticizing Putin with Trumpist tropes

Meanwhile, other Republicans are condemning Putin while obscuring the situation with a fog of Trumpist tropes.

Take J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and GOP Senate candidate in Ohio. After claiming not to care about Ukraine’s fate, he abruptly issued a new statement admitting the invasion is a tragedy but blaming “elites” and “globalists” for the problem, insisting those taking action to defend Ukraine secretly want to drag the United States into armed conflict.

Here again, there’s a legitimate historical debate over whether NATO expanded too far in a way that aggrieved Russia. But Vance deep-sixes nuance: NATO’s successes in maintaining decades of relative peace and security for hundreds of millions of people are entirely erased.

Vance now dismisses the worth of sanctions against Putin. And he bizarrely claims the only “solution” to “tyranny abroad” is a strongly nationalist America — but how this would have stopped Putin is unexplained.

You see, internationalist commitments cannot simply be admittedly insufficient in a situation where armed aggression by a nuke-possessing madman leaves no good options. These commitments must have no value whatsoever and can reflect only corrupt elite plotting, and the only answer can be maximal withdraw from them. What that withdrawal is supposed to be an answer to remains unstated.

But Vance manages to condemn Putin while remaining faithful to Trumpist nationalist tropes, without admitting how aligned they — and Trump himself — are with Putin’s own worldview and goals.

Meanwhile, one of Vance’s primary opponents, former Ohio state GOP chair Jane Timken, condemns Putin’s aggression. But she also insists the true version of “America First” entails taking aggressive non-military steps against Putin, because this will “protect American security interests at home and abroad.”

It is in our interests, and in the interests of the West and liberal democracy, to defend Ukraine through sanctions and other measures. But in the real world, this has nothing in common with Trump’s vision of “America First,” which has long been all about weakening the Atlantic alliance. Magically, the alignment of “America First” Trumpism with Putin’s interests is simply erased.

Here’s the bottom line. Many Republicans are legitimately horrified by Putin’s invasion and do support action against it. What they cannot do is hold this position while also admitting that Trump consistently sided with Putin against Ukraine; that Trump’s efforts to weaken our international commitments are largely aligned with Putin and against the interests of the West; and that we’re now witnessing the awful truth about the threat that Trump consistently downplayed.