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The Memo: DeSantis joins Trump in pushing GOP toward skepticism on Ukraine

By Niall Stanage,

2023-03-14

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has made a dramatic intervention in the national debate on Ukraine — and the reverberations are big.

In response to a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson of Fox News, DeSantis declared that the war between Russia and Ukraine was merely a “territorial dispute” — and one that does not involve America’s “vital national interests.”

Carlson revealed the responses on Monday evening.

DeSantis, who is widely expected to announce a presidential campaign in the coming months, also contended, “We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland” — a reference to the situation at the southern border.

DeSantis’s current position does not require him to engage with great force or frequency on foreign policy. The fact that he has done so brings him into close alignment with former President Trump, who has expressed fear that the U.S.’s support for Ukraine is risking a world war.

During a speech earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump claimed that he could settle the Ukraine war “in no longer than one day.”

In a separate recent radio interview with Sean Hannity, Trump appeared to indicate he would be willing to let Russia “take over something” as the price of peace, adding “you could’ve worked a deal.”

The bigger point is that the GOP is beginning a presidential campaign season where the two most prominent candidates — assuming DeSantis runs — are both skeptics about continued U.S. aid to Kyiv.

That, in turn, threatens to transform the internal dynamics of the debate in a way that the statements of congressional firebrands like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have not.

Up until now, broad swathes of opinion within the GOP have remained broadly supportive of aid to Ukraine even as the war with Russia has entered its second year.

Last month, for example, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told CNN’s “State of the Union” that bipartisan support for backing up Ukraine was “still very strong.”

During that interview, McCaul suggested the U.S. could ratchet up its support by seriously considering sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

Also last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Munich Security Conference that he and other top figures remained supportive of aid to Ukraine.

“Don’t look at Twitter, look at people in power. Look at me and Speaker Kevin McCarthy,” McConnell said.

But the power of the skeptics is not confined to mean tweets, as the positions of Trump and DeSantis make clear.

That, in turn, is causing concern for more traditional Republican voices.

Former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) took issue with DeSantis’s description of the war, telling this column that Ukraine’s fate was “most surely in America’s national interest.”

Dent added: “At least at the moment, Republican support for Ukraine in Congress remains strong. Are there some voices arguing the way Trump is? Yes. And it is concerning that the number might grow. If the party nominates someone who embraces that view, then I fear members of Congress might follow.”

Congress has authorized well over $100 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine since Russia’s February 2022 invasion. The sums involved have clearly caused consternation among some parts of the Republican grassroots.

A Pew Research poll just before the first anniversary of the invasion found that 40 percent of Republicans believed the U.S. was giving too much aid to Ukraine, by comparison with just 15 percent of Democrats sharing that view.

Michael Caputo is a longtime friend and adviser to Trump but he personally backs Ukraine strongly, in part because he has relatives in the country.

Nonetheless, he said: “It’s not that DeSantis and Donald Trump are pulling the party away from Ukraine. The party is pulling Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis away from Ukraine.”

Caputo added: “The rank and file of the Republican Party have become highly skeptical of the Ukraine war for reasons that are not entirely wrong — there is no oversight on the money and there seems to be no end in sight. Those are things you can never sell to the American people.”

That hasn’t led all Republicans to the same view of the situation as Trump and DeSantis, however.

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in response to the same Carlson questionnaire that opposing Russia’s invasion was indeed in America’s vital national interest.

“America is far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory, including avoiding a wider war. If Russia wins, there is no reason to believe it will stop at Ukraine. And if Russia wins, then its closest allies, China and Iran, will become more aggressive,” Haley wrote.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted Tuesday: “If Putin loses in Ukraine, then the world resets in all the right ways. If he wins in Ukraine and the west capitulates just like in the past, more conflict is coming.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took issue with DeSantis’s characterization of the war as a “territorial dispute,” telling radio host Hugh Hewitt “Just because someone claims something doesn’t mean it belongs to them…it’s really more of a desire to dominate their neighbor, have them as part of their sphere of influence, not so much of it about the land.”

Still, Republican opinion could be on the brink of yet another big shift as the skeptics become more assertive.

But it’s not as if harmony has broken out between DeSantis and Trump — despite their newly similar positions.

According to CBS News, the former president told reporters in Iowa late Monday that DeSantis is “following what I am saying. It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage

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