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Russia's invasion puts a new light on Trump's Ukraine pressure campaign

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 26.
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 26.

A "perfect" call, it was not.

Then-President Donald Trump was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for Ukraine's defense as he was asking its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to investigate Trump's potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden.

That 2019 call got Trump impeached. But the Senate acquitted him, and he dismissed the controversy as a politically motivated hit job — and his base went along.

Now, with Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine and Zelenskyy being hailed around the world as a hero for his resolve, that call is put into a very different light.

"There's just a lot of evidence that Trump was wrong on this issue [Ukraine] and that in many ways, we undermined the NATO alliance and we undermined Zelenskyy's position in the eyes of Russia and Putin," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former senior adviser on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.

Trump has shifted his positions on the war in Ukraine. Shortly before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion, Trump called Putin "smart" and "savvy" because Putin had declared portions of Ukraine "independent," something Putin had no right to do.

After the invasion began, Trump defended saying that Putin was "smart," then called President Biden "weak" and described NATO countries as "not so smart."

"The problem is not that Putin is smart — which of course he is smart," Trump told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference. "But the real problem is that our leaders are dumb. Dumb. So dumb."

As scenes of war and death in Ukraine at the hands of Russia have played out for the world to see on television screens all day for days on end, Trump has changed his tune.

In recent days, he called what's happening there a "holocaust"; said many times over that the war would never have happened if he were still president; and even called for the U.S. to attack Russia but make it look like it was actually China — by flying American planes with a Chinese flag on the side.

"And then we say, 'China did it,' " Trump told Republican donors Saturday in New Orleans, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post. " 'We didn't do it — China did it,' and then they start fighting with each other and we sit back and watch."

It's the kind of simple-sounding amateur solution that Trump has floated throughout his political life, one that is impracticable in a complicated world.

A pro-Ukraine protester demonstrates outside the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images
Getty Images
A pro-Ukraine protester demonstrates outside the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

"Trump is on the wrong side of the issue, I think it's fair to say," said Stephen Hayes, editor at the conservative outlet The Dispatch. "I don't think he's likely to bring a lot of people back to a pro-Putin stance. If anything, we're likely to see the hostility towards Putin and toward this brutal invasion increase, I think, in pretty significant ways, as it becomes clearer and clearer what Putin is actually doing."

Unlike other issues, from Medicare to trade, in which Trump has brought Republicans to his view, he has struggled to lead on his position on Putin and Ukraine.

"I do think this is a situation where it's going to be harder for Trump to bring that base along," Hayes said. "And maybe that's one of the reasons that we're starting to see him soften that position."

Trump's approach to the world faces a test

Whether it will matter for Republican voters, as Trump continues to strongly tease a 2024 presidential run, is tougher to say.

"I think it is a risk," Madden said. "But if the question is, how motivated are our base Republican voters on issues of national security and foreign policy or the threat of Russia? It's not as big an issue as some of these other cultural issues, where there is much closer alignment with Trump."

The culture wars, tax cuts and wanting government to do less really appear to be the unifying axis right now for the Republican Party. But if Ukraine continues to get the kind of attention it's getting, that could change things, Hayes said.

"The reality ultimately does matter, right?" he said. "If we just see this kind of destruction that continues to get the kind of media attention it deserves, it changes things. It'll end up changing things in our country. And I think people won't stand for that. I really do."

Few Republicans, however, have called Trump out for his coziness toward Russia and his initial softer stance toward Putin. Instead, they are speaking more clearly in their denunciation of Putin but charging that Biden has botched the response.

Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, reportedly took an oblique shot at Trump in a speech before GOP donors Friday.

"There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin," Pence said. "There is only room for champions of freedom."

He also praised NATO, which Trump has continuously criticized.

"Where would our friends in Eastern Europe be today if they were not in NATO?" Pence said. "Where would Russian tanks be today if NATO had not expanded the borders of freedom?"

The problem, Madden says, is that this kind of message isn't being delivered repeatedly across the Republican Party and done so explicitly.

"That's one of the things about any sort of counterpoints for Trump within the Republican Party right now is those efforts have never really been broad," Madden said. "They've never really been sustained. They've never been methodical. They've always just been glancing blows. And that's why he still has such a strong command over the party apparatus."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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