Congressional Republicans Have Found Their Red Line

The GOP seems relieved to have bipartisan agreement—and to distance itself a bit from Donald Trump.

The GOP elephant colored like the Ukrainian flag
The Atlantic

It was fair, last week, to question whether Republicans in Congress would condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because the party’s de facto leader was praising Vladimir Putin’s aggression as “genius” and “wonderful.” Yet instead of falling in line behind Donald Trump, most congressional Republicans have denounced Putin just as loudly as Democrats have.

This fact would not have been surprising just a few years ago. But it’s one of the more meaningful distinctions that rank-and-file members of the party have drawn recently between themselves and the former president, a man with an almost preternatural ability to turn anyone who questions him into a political pariah. At least temporarily, the war in Ukraine has established a cease-fire between America’s ever-dueling parties, and lowered the temperature on Capitol Hill by a few degrees. Many Republicans seem relieved, both for the reprieve and for the chance to distance themselves a bit from Trump. The break probably won’t last long.

“There’s zero support for Putin,” Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio told me Wednesday. He and other members I interviewed compared the past few days in Congress to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. “The country pulled together then, and to a considerable degree the country is pulling together” now, he said. “We’re generally united in a mission to help Ukraine as much as we can,” Representative John Katko of New York told me with a grin. “It’s kind of inspiring. It makes you feel good!”

A small minority on the right have been squishy on Ukraine and how to view Putin’s aggression. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming has referred to this group as the “Putin wing” of the party. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, recently addressed a conference organized by a white nationalist who supports Putin; attendees chanted the Russian president’s name and Greene said nothing. Last month, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida asked the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando about the necessity of defending Ukraine. Outside of Congress, Trump allies such as Tucker Carlson have spent weeks defending Putin.

But this small minority is, well, very small. Like members of the American public, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are in widespread agreement that piling harsh economic sanctions on Russia is the appropriate response to Putin’s aggression. Pretty much no one is agitating to put U.S. boots on Ukrainian soil. “It’s sort of all in, short of sending American troops,” GOP Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told my colleague Russell Berman last week, adding that the bipartisan consensus extended to high-level classified briefings with top Biden-administration officials. President Joe Biden has even drawn praise from a handful of Republicans for his handling of the crisis. The part of Biden’s State of the Union speech about Ukraine “was wonderful,” Katko told me. When members of both parties stood to applaud, “it was nice to see the unity on the House floor.” It’s great, Representative Debbie Lesko of Arizona, another Republican, told me, “when we can agree on things, and there’s not always debate over every single thing.”

At this point, the remaining debate in Lesko’s party is more about how far the United States should go in opposing Putin, not whether to oppose him. This also gives Republicans space to criticize the Biden administration’s approach at least a bit, which is in their interest in an election year. Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi have called for the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone above Ukraine. Senator Rick Scott of Florida said that no option—even deploying troops—should be off the table. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested in a tweet that someone in Russia should pull a Brutus and assassinate Putin.

Many Republicans seem quite happy—eager, even—to use Ukraine as a way to distance themselves from Trump. In normal times, many of them have had difficulty mustering the will to challenge the former president when they might want to, given how much political power he wields. But in this particular case, questioning the GOP figurehead is safe. On Ukraine, Trump has been out of step with most Americans. “I agree with [Mike] Pence, that there’s no room in our party for apologists for Putin,” Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho told me when I asked about Trump’s comments. “Is most of the Republican conference with you on that?” I followed up. “Yep,” Simpson quickly replied. Katko, from New York, was more direct: “Putin isn’t a genius, and neither is Trump.”

For the past week, the war in Eastern Europe has suppressed the salience of some of the most divisive debates happening on and off Capitol Hill, about reviving Biden’s “Build Back Better” domestic agenda and new developments in the January 6 investigation. The massive spending deal that Congress is expected to pass soon will include $13.6 billion in support for Ukraine—nearly $4 billion more than the White House requested from Congress.

But this détente won’t continue much longer. Soon, Republicans will be criticizing the Biden administration for rising gas prices as a result of Russia sanctions, and encouraging more domestic drilling. Democrats will argue that the war and gas companies’ rising profits are directly to blame. Congress’s united front was inspiring, as Katko said—while it lasted.