As Russian tanks and planes assault Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky valiantly leads the defense of his nation, I am reminded of that perfect phone call. The one on July 25, 2019, where former president Donald Trump threatened to withhold needed anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and other defensive weapons from Ukraine until Zelensky dug up political dirt on Joe Biden.
The powerful former reality television performer faced off against an unknown former comedian. Reflecting back nearly three years later, one man looks like a self-centered megalomaniac and the other has become an international hero.
Trump’s attempted extortion got him impeached and his fealty to Russian President Vladimir Putin put him on the wrong side of history. Zelensky’s bravery gave the Russian bear a bloody nose that did far greater damage than anyone imagined. Ultimately, the military superpower may vanquish the outnumbered and outgunned defenders of democracy, but it cannot win this war.
Even as Putin makes veiled threats of nuclear war because the West, led by the US, is tightening economic pressure on his country, the obsequious Trump and his minions continue to put partisanship over patriotism and root for the fellow bully. Setting a new standard for political absurdity, Trump insists Biden is at fault “because of a rigged election.”
“This never would have happened with us had I been in office – not even thinkable,” he said in a radio interview last week. He called the Russian autocrat a genius and praised his push into Ukraine, and recognition of two breakaway provinces as wonderful and savvy. According to the Trump mythology, the former president knew Putin wanted Ukraine, but told him “You can’t do it,” so Putin waited for Biden. The reality is that Putin wasn’t afraid of Trump, but instead saw him as weak, malleable and unlikely to stand in his way.
Trump is a man consumed with his grievances, lies and resentment. It was his extortion demands on Zelensky that helped make Ukraine so vulnerable today to Russian tanks and planes. Even as Putin threatens nuclear war, Trump and his loyal minions continue to put party over country, as they try to place the blame for the bloodshed on Biden. It comes down to this: They hate Joe Biden more than they love democracy or America.
Republicans have no serious Ukraine strategy beyond tearing down Biden, and if that means building up Putin, fine. In pressing their case against Biden, they’ve made themselves Putin’s fifth column, undermining America’s diplomatic, political and national security interests. Even those not gushing over Putin or even those branding him a thug still place a higher priority on demonizing the American president rather than the Russian aggressor.
Matching Trump as Putin’s biggest booster and getting similar extensive and favorable coverage on Russian state media is Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the network’s most popular host. His rants sound like they were taken from Putin’s talking points. He dismissed the Ukraine crisis as a border dispute, saying his view is to side with Putin. “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.” He’s also an enthusiastic cheerleader for Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban. As if reading Kremlin talking points, Carlson has said “Ukraine is not a democracy,” but actually a “tyranny.”
After seeing the destruction by Russian bombs and artillery, he conceded Putin started this war but went on to insist it was Biden’s fault anyway. He even attacked Republicans who want a tougher US response to the invasion, singling out Senators Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) as ignorant and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) as a moron. Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D – Massachusetts) called Carlson a pro-Putin shill doing tremendous damage to the US.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) is one of a few Republicans with the courage to call out the former president. “Trump’s interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States of America,” she said. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) said Trump and Carlson’s comments “feed into Putin’s narrative.”
THEY ARE a distinct minority. Most Republicans are siding with Trump and Carlson by putting blame on Biden, even when they criticize Putin. “If Donald Trump were president, none of this crap would be going on,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) said Wednesday on Fox News. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo called Putin “Very shrewd. Very capable. I have enormous respect for him.”
Too many Republicans, starting at the very top, appear more inclined to favor the president of Russia than the president of the US.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, pounded Biden for treason. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Pennsylvania Senate candidate, said Biden is inviting further aggressions. Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon praised Putin’s tough talk and said “No one in the Trump movement has any interest at all in the Russian-speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine. Zero.”
Right-wing conspiracy theorist Candace Owens blamed the US for the war, saying “We are at fault.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, through a spokeswoman, said, “The USA is in no position to promote democracy abroad while our own country is falling apart.”
Others in the chorus were Senators Bill Hagerty (Tennessee), Mitt Romney (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (New York).
Audiences at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando heard that the war was caused by Biden’s weakness and never would have happened under Trump. Loudest of all was Trump himself.
Former national security adviser to Trump and QAnon follower, Michael Flynn, defended “Putin’s legitimate security concerns” in Ukraine and accused Biden of demonizing Russia. He said Biden “laughed at Putin’s legitimate security concerns and legitimate ethnic problems in the Ukraine.”
Putin and Trump have much in common. They favor autocracy and find democracy a nuisance, preferring to deal with like-minded rulers. Neither ever admits mistakes or knows any shame. Each is a bully, greedy and a coward inclined to go after smaller, weaker adversaries. Each sees himself as his country’s savior, whose destiny is to restore it to whatever he considers its past greatness. They share a contempt for NATO.
Like all his recent predecessors, Biden had limited leverage over the volatile Russian dictator. Faced with the incredible dangers of provoking a nuclear confrontation with Moscow, he has responded to the invasion in a measured way that seeks to balance our interest in supporting a fellow democracy against an unprovoked invasion and our very real, very complex security concerns. It’s hard to imagine an impulsive, raging Trump responding to a national security crisis with the same qualities.
Trump, the extortionist, says the war is Joe Biden’s fault. Biden says it is Putin’s.
Who do you think Volodymyr Zelensky prefers as the American president, Biden or Trump?
The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).