Ukraine skeptics are finally breaking through in the presidential race
President Joe Biden said on Monday that his surprise visit to Kiev should erase “doubt” about America’s “support for Ukraine in the war.” A few hours later, Biden’s predecessor and would-be challenger was second-guessing him.
“I think it's very sad,” Donald Trump said in an interview with Just the News host John Solomon.
Trump was spending the week promoting his own upcoming trip to East Palestine, Ohio, where a Feb. 3 train derailment led to a railroad company burning toxic chemicals. Later the same day, he lamented at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport “that you have a president going to Ukraine and you have people in Ohio who are in desperate need of help.”
He was adopting the argument that critics of Ukraine funding had made for months: Every dollar spent is one that could have been used in America.
Republicans, whose voters have grown more skeptical about funding Ukraine’s defense, increasingly characterize it as a wasteful, risky, and distracting White House obsession. It’s a perspective that's been spreading from the far right to the center of the party over the last year.
“We have a lot of problems accumulating here in our own country that he is neglecting,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox News after Biden headed to Kiev.
Before Biden’s trip, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul joked that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine would have gotten aid to the state faster if he’d disguised himself as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And on Sunday, Paul’s father, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, joined three other former presidential candidates at a D.C. rally to “rage against the war machine.”
In front of the Lincoln Memorial, before a crowd of around 1000 people, activists usually isolated to the political fringes compared the more than $100 billion in weapons and financial aid to Ukraine with stories of homelessness and deprivation at home.
“The president’s preference to go to Kiev instead of East Palestine clearly demonstrates the obtuseness, the moral blindness, of the administration on matters related to the concerns of Americans,” former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who ran for president in 2004 and 2008 and spoke from the rally stage, told Semafor. “I consider it a watershed moment.”
Some of what Republicans and the Ukraine-skeptical left say about Biden rhymes with what Democrats said about George H.W. Bush 30 years ago and George W. Bush 20 years ago — that the president’s foreign policy obsessions were distracting from real American needs.
In Kiev, Biden announced another $500 million of security assistance for President Vladimir Zelenskyy’s government; in America, the mayor of the town where the train derailed was condemning Biden for doing this on Presidents’ Day.
"That was the biggest slap in the face," East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway told Fox News on Monday. "That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us. He can send every agency he wants to, but I found out this morning that he was in Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there and not to us.”
The MAGA wing’s discontent isn’t yet threatening Ukraine aid in Congress, where the country can count on support from key GOP leaders. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell complained to the Washington Post last week that “there’s been way too much attention given to a few people who seem not to be invested in Ukraine’s success,” before flying to the Munich Security Conference.
But the message is having an impact on voters. Polling conducted for the Associated Press last month showed a 14-point drop in the number of Republicans who supported “providing weapons to Ukraine” since May 2022, the last time that question was asked. Republicans, who’d always opposed “sending government funds directly to Ukraine,” now opposed it by a 58-21 margin.
That sentiment has not translated, so far, into mass mobilization, as Sunday’s antiwar rally in D.C. showed. No Republican holding office attended. High-profile guests like Paul, Kucinich, and ex-Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard drew a crowd smaller than the 2017 Juggalo March, held on the same spot to protest the FBI giving “gang” designation to fans of Insane Clown Posse. Some antiwar organizations skipped the event, focusing on an alternative “Peace in Ukraine” rally, scheduled for March 18, the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Russian state media did interviews on the scene, but most American legacy media avoided the event completely. A brief mention on MSNBC focused on two protesters who’d shown up waving Russian flags, and the role that organizations tied to the late conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche had in building the event and the speaker list.
“This murderous military spending consumes resources desperately needed here at home,“ said 2016 Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, who’d attended a 2015 dinner in Moscow with Russian Vladimir Putin, at the rally. “Yes, Russia illegally invaded Ukraine, but did so with a gun to its head.”
There was a theme to the day: Biden was not only wasting resources, but pushing the world closer to nuclear war. Kucinich suggested to me that Biden “opened himself up to impeachment” if Seymour Hersh’s reporting that linked the U.S. to the sabotage of the Nord Stream energy pipelines was true. (The administration has denied any role in explosions that damaged the pipelines.)
That panicked view hasn’t gotten as much traction among Republicans, which may explain why so few turned out. What has caught on is the idea of Biden as an aloof and incompetent global player who doesn’t care about the parts of America that didn’t vote for him.
The View From Nikki Haley
Trump’s newest rival for the 2024 nomination hasn’t played the Ohio-or-Ukraine game, telling her first audiences in New Hampshire last week that the country needed and deserved American funding — not a “blank check,” but enough to win.
“If we win this fight for freedom,” Haley said on Monday night in Urbandale, Iowa, “it will send a signal to every enemy we have.”