Reports of horrific atrocities in Ukraine are putting some who are sympathetic to the Kremlin’s take on the Russian invasion in an awkward position, since most people aren’t comfortable defending war crimes.
We’re not referring to the Fox News commentators and performative populist nationalists who openly played footsie with Putin before the invasion, though those worthies have plainly lost their ideological footing and don’t know what to say, now that Putin’s horrors have mounted.
Instead, we’re talking about all the Republicans who do denounce Putin’s invasion and support a forceful response, but almost never admit to — let alone renounce — Trump’s years of efforts as president to align our interests with those of Putin and against Ukraine, the West and liberal democracy.
Democrats could make a forceful case against those Republicans right now. One Democrat trying to do this is Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who faces a tough reelection fight in her Virginia swing district.
“We saw a president align himself completely with Putin,” Spanberger told us. “We continue to see this former president call Putin a ‘genius,’ say affirming things — certainly not denounce him in the strongest words possible.”
“People need to take a side on the past actions that occurred under the prior administration as it related to Putin,” said Spanberger, who has a national security background as a former CIA official.
“Every Republican” should be pressed on these matters, argued Spanberger, such as whether they will now acknowledge how derelict it was that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine to pressure Zelensky to carry out his corrupt political bidding.
Just try to imagine what Republicans would be saying right now, with much of the world united in support of Ukraine and against Putin’s brutality, if a Democratic president did everything Trump did.
If a Democrat had frozen aid to Ukraine when it was under Russian attack. If a Democrat had fawned over Putin’s supposed strength and intelligence for years, even defending his suppression of dissent. If a Democrat had stood next to Putin in Helsinki and accepted Putin’s word for it that he did not seek to subvert a U.S. presidential election.
Yet today, the Republicans who stood by Trump through all his Russia-Ukraine scandals — and who still consider him the leader of their party — seem to have little fear that their own recent history will be used against them.
Amid Trump’s current praise of Putin, his refusal to address the invasion with moral clarity, and even his call for Putin to find dirt on President Biden’s son Hunter, Republicans still seem to have felt little serious political heat.
Yes, some Republicans have faced media pressure to narrowly condemn such moments. But they don’t seem to feel any obligation to fundamentally renounce Trump’s broader posture. Couldn’t Democrats press this point a bit harder?
Some Democratic House candidates are trying to do this. Jay Chen, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer who is running in California, recently declared: “Republicans have a ton of baggage when it comes to their worship of Vladimir Putin.”
Spanberger, for her part, argued that Republicans should feel pressure to “very clearly stand up for the cause of democracy,” and “very clearly denounce authoritarians such as Putin, and anyone that gives them comfort and cover,” Trump very much included.
This isn’t just about re-litigating the past. It also has a forward-looking dimension. The 2024 presidential nomination might be Trump’s for the asking, and according to former Trump adviser John Bolton, in a second term Trump might seek to withdraw from NATO.
Democrats might point out what it would mean to have Trump become president again, only this time in the aftermath of Putin’s effort to violently annex Ukraine while committing war crimes in the process.
“We’re talking about a man who has praised an authoritarian killer for invading a sovereign nation,” Spanberger told us. If Ukraine does successfully resist the invasion and is “in a fledgling state of rebuilding” which will require the “support of NATO allies,” Spanberger asked, “what happens when we have a president who turns back toward Putin?”
Shouldn’t Republicans who still treat Trump as the leader of their party be pressed to account for this?