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Feb 23, 2024, 1:17pm EST
politicsNorth America

How Ukraine became a dirty word at CPAC

A group of Trump supporters hold up signs at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 22, 2024.
REUTERS/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
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The Scene

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Republicans who flocked to this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference brimmed with reasons to re-elect Donald Trump. The biggest: world peace.

“Stop the bipartisan warmongers in Washington who constantly beat their war drums, who have pushed us to the precipice of World War III and a nuclear catastrophe,” said ex-Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat-turned-independent now seen as a potential Trump running mate.

“We gotta get it over to Donald Trump to stop it,” Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville said, in an onstage discussion about ending U.S. aid to Ukraine. “He knows there’s no winning for Ukraine. He can work a deal with Putin.”

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Two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, four months into the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the 50th annual gathering of conservatives described America’s foreign entanglements as mistakes, blundered into by Joe Biden and the “globalists” who backed him.

There was no appetite at the Gaylord National Harbor for continued Ukraine war funding, stalled in Congress by a conservative bloc of House Republicans. The Republicans who supported the war effort, including Nikki Haley, didn’t make the trip, and wouldn’t have been welcomed if they did. Some politicians, said former Trump national security official Kash Patel on Friday, were captured by a defense industry that “sent our sons and daughters to die for other peoples’ fights.”

That attitude, once held by a frustrated faction of the conservative movement, was universal at what’s now a resolutely pro-Trump conference. In a shrunk-down exhibit hall, where attendees could play a Jan. 6-themed pinball game or sample Woke Tears Water — sold by a Ukrainian immigrant — the John Birch Society had reserved two booths, loaded with copies of “New American” magazine.

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“We just can’t keep printing money and funding foreign wars and globalism,” said Michael Smart, a JBS coordinator in Virginia.

At the same time, there was no public display of the pro-Russian revisionism that’s been popular on parts of the right — and there were frequent disavowals of Vladimir Putin.

“I don’t think everybody’s rooting for Putin. They don’t know what the plan is,” CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp told Semafor. “When I hear [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy talk, I don’t think he’s ever explained what the strategy is. He’s said he’s in a desperate situation, running out of ammunition, but how many times do American taxpayers have to write a big check to prolong a conflict?”

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At a Thursday panel about the Freedom Caucus’s work in the House, which included stopping war funding, the rationale was clear. “This bit where we just give billions and billions of dollars of American treasure away is unacceptable,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry. “Nobody — not me, not us, not anybody — agrees with what Vladimir Putin and Russia has done. Not any of us. But the Biden administration, or anybody else, hasn’t told us what the endgame is. How are we spending all your hard earned tax money over there? Where do we finish this thing?”

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David’s view

Here’s the short story of CPAC and the right over the last 10 years. First, Ron Paul’s two presidential bids built a beachhead for anti-interventionism inside the party; Paul frequently won the once-suspenseful presidential straw poll. Then, Trump ran for president and won, promising to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” and exit the Iran nuclear deal, but otherwise reduce America’s international footprint.

Finally, Trump lost the 2020 election. (Not everyone at CPAC agrees.) Every international disaster since then has been interpreted as proof that the Trump approach worked, and that the Biden approach didn’t. Yes, there’s a faction of the right rooting for Putin to win. Far more popular is the idea that Putin feared Trump — everyone did — and that brought peace.

“If you want to avoid war, you need tough diplomacy,” former Trump Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell said on Thursday. “The Democrats made fun of tough diplomacy. Every one of our ambassadors, every time President Trump used tough diplomacy, the Democrats mocked it. I have to say to you: You better have an SOB diplomat if you want to avoid war.”

The 2022 edition of CPAC began just as the Russian invasion did, and the mood was different. Gabbard, then making her first steps into the conservative movement, asked for a moment of silence in support of suffering Ukrainians; support for its military defense wasn’t really questioned.

One year later, 79% of CPAC attendees who voted in the 2023 conference straw poll disapproved of further military funding for Ukraine. The stalemate in the House now was predictable then: Republicans, especially pro-Trump Republicans, described a binary choice between defending the U.S.-Mexico border from asylum-seekers and smugglers, and defending Ukraine’s borders from a military invasion.

“Joe Biden, which country matters more to you: The border of the United States or the border of Ukraine?” Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, who some Republicans see as a potential Trump running mate, said Thursday. On Friday, former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, also seen as likely to join a second administration, described how the military could “establish a fortress position on the border,” a far bigger priority for CPAC attendees than Ukraine.

Ukraine supporters are not exactly convinced the argument is sincere, as opposed to a fig leaf for a broader pro-Russian tilt under Trump, especially after Republicans rejected a bipartisan deal to crack down on asylum seekers and pump billions of dollars into border operations. But the framing is ubiquitous on the right at every level, from politicians, to commentators, to rank-and-file Republican voters.

“This administration — I don’t trust ‘em to get any type of aid. They’ve already gotten over $100 billion,” said South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, in an interview this week before a Haley rally in his district.

Norman was Haley’s sole endorser in Congress, but even he wasn’t willing to support Ukraine funding without border funding, a difference with his candidate — and, because House Republicans rejected the Senate’s border compromise, a non-starter. “To be honest with you, I wouldn’t vote for funding for Ukraine without the border,” he said. “We’re broke as it is.”

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Room for Disagreement

One of the only Republicans arguing that a second Trump term would make Americans less safe is Haley, who was spending the weekend at her final campaign stops before the South Carolina primary. “The only way we prevent war is if Ukraine defeats Russia in this instance, because otherwise that puts us all at war,” Haley told NPR this week. She has also criticized Trump for his warm words towards Putin. None of it has worked so far.

“We spent most of my adult life hating Russia, and then we changed to China,” said former South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson, a Haley endorser. “People just aren’t scared of Russia like they used to be of the Soviet Union.”

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Notable

  • In the Wall Street Journal, Molly Ball looks at CPAC and beyond to explain why conservatives oppose Ukraine funding: “Numerous attendees said they had watched and been impressed by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s recent friendly interview with Putin.”
  • In Politico, Ben Jacobs finds a confused CPAC reception for Liz Truss, the short-serving U.K. prime minister: “One request for a selfie came from Barbara Coward, a suburban Baltimore woman whose husband was British and thought it would be a good memento for her half-British children.”
  • In Off Message, Brian Beutler frets that Democrats aren’t pressing their political advantage on the question of Russian political influence in America, as seen by the indictment of an FBI witness who claimed that Biden got bribes from Ukraine: “In a best case scenario, all of the Republicans who abetted the Russian op did so as blind but useful idiots.”
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