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Pence says there’s no room in the GOP for ‘apologists for Putin’ in veiled swipe at Trump

President Donald Trump speaks as Vice President Mike Pence looks on during a news conference on April 27, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Former vice president Mike Pence on Friday night said there is no room in the Republican Party for “apologists for Putin” in an apparent swipe at former president Donald Trump.

In a speech to GOP donors in New Orleans, Pence referenced the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the United States and international community have responded with wide-ranging, extensive sanctions against Russia, Pence said now was not the time for conservatives to voice their support of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Ask yourself, where would our friends in Eastern Europe be today if they were not in NATO? Where would Russian tanks be today if NATO had not expanded the borders of freedom?” he said. “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.”

While Pence did not explicitly refer to the former president by name, Trump has been among the loudest, and only, Republican voices supporting Putin. Trump recently described Putin as “smart,” “savvy” and “a genius,” while insisting the attack on Ukraine never would have happened on his watch.

“The problem is not that Putin is smart — which of course he’s smart,” Trump said last week, “but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb. Dumb. So dumb.”

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Pence’s comments come as fighting continues to play out across Ukraine. After evacuation efforts in Mariupol were halted because of what Ukrainian officials said was continued shelling from Russian forces, Putin on Saturday again denounced the widespread sanctions leveled against Russia from the international community. He described the sanctions as like a “declaration of war,” and said any continued pushback on the invasion from Ukrainian and world leaders would risk “the future of Ukrainian statehood.”

On March 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that harsh international sanctions against Russia were like a ‘declaration of war.’ (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

More than 1.2 million people have fled the fighting in Ukraine, and at least 331 civilians have been killed, according to U.N. agencies. But researchers caution that the actual toll is probably higher because it is difficult and often dangerous to count the dead during war.

GOP leaders have largely condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, even as Republican leaders such as former secretary of state Mike Pompeo have described the Russian president as a “talented statesman” with “lots of gifts.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was sharply criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle this week after suggesting the “only way” to end the crisis in Ukraine is for Russians to assassinate Putin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Graham’s comments reflected a “hysterical, extreme pressure of a Russophobic outburst” at a time of such global tension.

The White House also rejected Graham’s call for an assassination.

“That is not the position of the United States government and certainly not a statement you’d hear from come from the mouth of anybody working in this administration,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a daily briefing on Friday. Members of Congress also criticized Graham’s tweets as reckless, including Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.).

Volunteer fighter Volodymyr Nezhenets, 54, was fatally shot in a gun battle in Kyiv on Feb. 27. His widow, Oksana, was determined to give him a proper burial. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Lee Powell/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The conservative shift on Russia has also come on Fox News, where host Tucker Carlson has changed his tone on Putin after initially downplaying the conflict and asking Americans why they hated the Russian president.

Despite his indirect reference to Trump in his Friday speech, Pence echoed the former president and cast blame on the Biden administration’s handling of the Ukraine crisis.

“It’s no coincidence that Russia waited until 2022 to invade Ukraine,” Pence said. “Weakness arouses evil, and the magnitude of evil sweeping across Ukraine speaks volumes about this president.”

He praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for acting courageously and said Putin “only understands strength.” Pence also urged Republicans to support humanitarian and refugee aid efforts.

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Discussing future elections, Pence said Republicans needed to move past the 2020 election loss. Trump has continued to falsely claim that Pence had the authority to overturn the 2020 election during Congress’s counting of electoral college votes, which he did not. Such false claims helped fuel the “Hang Mike Pence!” chant that erupted among the pro-Trump mob at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

“My fellow Republicans, we can only win if we are united around an optimistic vision for the future based on our highest values,” he said. “We cannot win by fighting yesterday’s battles, or by re-litigating the past.”