WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans today are lining up to support military aid to Ukraine just two years after backing then-President Donald Trump’s extortion scheme against that country, apparently in acknowledgment that their earlier choices could come back to haunt them in this autumn’s midterms.
“I have zero problems with this phone call. There’s no quid pro quo here,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Sept. 29, 2019, defending Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into smearing Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic challenger Trump most feared, by withholding military aid to Ukraine.
“This type of diplomacy is hard to watch but nonetheless has existed and hardly rises to an impeachable offense,” said South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds on Nov. 7, 2019.
In recent days, those same Republicans and many others have come around to urge Trump’s successor, Democrat Joe Biden, to provide more military assistance to Ukraine in the face of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
“Vladimir Putin is a cold, calculating killer. We must continue to support the people of Ukraine as they defend their country,” Rounds wrote on Twitter on Feb. 25.
“I have never seen a leader rise to the occasion more than President @ZelenskyyUa has done,” Graham added a day later.
“You can see by the mad scramble to support Zelenskyy and Ukraine that they are afraid of the consequences of their past miscreance,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
Back in 2019, Trump, his personal lawyer and allies in his administration pushed for Zelenskyy, a former comedian and political novice, to announce an investigation into Biden and to search for evidence that Ukraine had worked to elect Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, proof of which supposedly existed on a computer hidden somewhere in that country.
That false story, according to U.S. officials, was concocted by Russian intelligence in an attempt to deflect attention from their own successful work to put Trump into the White House in that election,
Trump, nevertheless, demanded Ukraine act on the Russian conspiracy theory and held up $391 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. In a now-infamous phone call with Zelenskyy, Trump asked him for “a favor,” which led to a whistleblower complaint that sparked Trump’s first impeachment.
Among 197 Republicans in the House and 53 in the Senate, only one — Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — voted that Trump had abused his power and should be removed from office because of it.
Some argued that while Trump’s call with Zelenskyy might have been improper, it did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Others, like Maine’s Susan Collins, said that the House impeachment vote by itself would be enough to chasten Trump and dissuade him from such behavior in the future.
“The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson,” she said.
Trump, though, was not at all chastened. In fact, the morning after the Senate voted not to remove him from office, he held a raucous celebration in the White House itself. “It was evil, it was corrupt, it was dirty cops, it was leakers and liars,” he said as dozens of GOP lawmakers whooped and cheered in the East Room.
Two years later, Trump is out of office, having lost his reelection and failed in his attempt to overthrow the republic to remain in power. Five thousand miles to the east, Zelenskyy has become a global hero for his leadership against Putin’s aggression.
“It’s dangerous to judge anything in the moment, but Trump’s fawning comments about Putin, disdain for NATO and strong-arming of Zelenskyy may be a heavy burden for Republicans moving forward,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic consultant behind former President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.
“You can see by the mad scramble to support Zelenskyy and Ukraine that they are afraid of the consequences of their past miscreance.”
– Norm Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute
It’s unclear exactly how much Republicans’ support for Trump — and indirectly, for Putin — in late 2019 and early 2020 will matter in November 2022 as the GOP tries to take control of both chambers of Congress.
Neil Newhouse, a prominent Republican pollster, estimates the potential effect at “nada.”
“There is very little chance that legislators’ votes against Trump’s impeachment regarding Ukraine will impact a single vote in the ’22 election,” he said. “It’s ancient history to most voters and of little relevance to the current conflict.”
“Voters vote on the issues that are affecting their lives today, and never on what happened in the previous administration,” added Rick Tyler, a GOP consultant who worked on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Amanda Carpenter, a former Cruz aide in his Senate office, said tying candidates to Trump’s pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine scheme could work but would require considerable effort from Democrats.
“Are Democrats going to make that a top campaign issue? I don’t see them making the impeachment vote a priority,” she said. “This is a moment where we need unity on supporting Ukraine and things are too volatile now to predict how it will play in 2022.”
She added that some Republicans’ vocal criticism of Ukraine and Zelenskyy today, such as recent remarks by North Carolina congressman Madison Cawthorn, could prove damaging in specific instances. “Stuff like this on an individual level, that is so clearly out of step with mainstream opinion, could be an issue in certain races,” she said.
AEI’s Ornstein agreed. “My guess is that the issue will be muddied enough, and the tribal impulse strong enough that it won’t matter for House members. The Senate could be a little different. It might be that this is an issue that could have an impact at the margins on Ron Johnson, for example,” he said of the Wisconsin Republican seeking reelection.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, for one, hopes Congress and the country can unite on helping Ukraine now and not try to “relitigate” things like Trump’s Ukraine impeachment.
“We can’t live in the past,” said Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. “The past is the past. I think we are where we are.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.