McConnell tries to stamp out Trump dissension on Ukraine

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is stamping out former President Trump’s efforts to sow dissension in the Republican Party over whether to send tens of billions of dollars in new assistance to Ukraine. 

McConnell is framing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a clear threat to U.S. national security interests, espousing the muscular foreign policy worldview that Republicans were known for before Trump took office in 2017.  

He traveled to the country over the weekend as part of an all-Republican Senate delegation to personally assure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that there’s strong Republican support for Kyiv, despite criticism of the latest Ukraine aid package from Trump and his allies, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).  

McConnell has feuded with Trump since he excoriated the former president on the Senate floor for inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, but he has mostly played defense, dodging repeated questions about Trump and ignoring the former president’s scathing mockery and attack.  

Now McConnell has a chance to go on offense by pushing his party to embrace the strong national security and foreign policy vision that it was known for under former Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, a worldview that Trump stepped away from.  

“Hopefully not many members of my party will choose to politicize this issue. I thought it was significant in the House that the House leadership voted for the package and the vast majority of House Republicans voted for the package,” McConnell told reporters after meeting with Zelensky, noting the House passed the $40 billion Ukraine package last week by a vote of 368-57.   

McConnell is arguing that standing up to Russian aggression is vital to U.S. interests and that failure to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin now could put European allies at risk, echoing the domino theory of communist expansion that was preeminent during the Cold War.  

“This is not some handout. This is to prevent this ruthless thug from beginning a march through Europe. And the first place to stop him is Ukraine, and that’s what we’re determined to do,” he said.  

A senior GOP aide noted that McConnell has spoken out for years against Russian aggression and Russian attempts to maintain a sphere of influence over former Soviet states.

McConnell warned about Putin’s designs in 2014 amidst Russia’s annexation of Crimea and predicted that “the leadership of Washington” would be of “critical importance in Ukraine.”

GOP strategists say most Republican voters agree with McConnell, giving him leverage in setting the tone for other GOP lawmakers in Congress.  

“McConnell did exactly the right thing, and I think that he was totally correct in suggesting that there’s strong Republican support for Ukraine,” Republican strategist Vin Weber said of McConnell’s weekend trip to Kyiv with Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  

“The reason he had to do it is because there are a few voices that dispute that, and they are outsized voices,” he added, referring to critics of Ukrainian aid such as Trump, Greene and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.  

“I’ve talked to people on Capitol Hill, and Republicans are hearing occasionally from their grassroots questions about why we’re doing so much for Ukraine,” Weber said. “That is not the main Republican view.  

“McConnell is trying to underscore that and make it clear that this handful of voices that you hear out there complaining about our support for Ukraine don’t represent any significant part of the Republican Party,” he said.  

McConnell told reporters Sunday that he wanted to send a clear message to Zelensky in their meeting.  

“What I assured him — this was an all-Republican delegation — is that support for Ukraine in this war against the Russians is bipartisan,” he said. “I wanted to assure them that within the Congress there was very, very broad support for continuing the fight.”

It was a pointed rebuttal to Trump and other prominent voices on the right who have questioned the continued flow of military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.  

McConnell has pushed back on Trump on the subject of Putin before. He memorably balked at Trump’s effort in 2017 to deflect criticism of Russia’s human rights record by claiming that past American leaders are also guilty of misconduct.  

“You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump asked then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly shortly after taking office.  

McConnell pushed back hard, asserting: “I don’t think there’s any equivalency.”  

Trump and McConnell have clashed over other major national security and foreign policy decisions, notably Trump’s desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which President Biden eventually did last year, leading to the swift collapse of the American-backed government.  

Trump issued a statement through his PAC Friday complaining that “Democrats are sending another $40 billion to Ukraine, yet America’s parents are struggling to even feed their children,” referring to the domestic baby formula shortage. 

Greene, a GOP backbencher who is popular with Trump supporters and frequently attends his rallies, has denounced Ukrainian aid as a “money laundering scheme” and suggested that Ukraine provoked the Russian invasion.  

Carlson has also invoked the baby formula shortage and called the $54 billion in total U.S. aid slated for Ukraine “a ludicrous amount.”  

McConnell, however, has waved off these criticisms as representing the isolationist strain of the Republican Party that has been a minority view within the GOP going back decades.  

“There have always been isolationist voices in the Republican Party prior to World War II, and that’s perfectly alright. This is a debate worth having. It’s an important subject, and I think one of the lessons we learned during World War II is that not standing up to aggression early is a huge mistake,” he said.  

Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and a former aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said, “McConnell is representing the old Cold War view of how to deal with Russia.”

“Obviously there’s merit in the proposal to help out the Ukrainian people. I think there’s a strong will within the Republican Party to provide support to Ukraine,” he said. “But I think Rand Paul, Donald Trump and others make important points. If we’re going to spend money like this, we need to find offsets. We need to have some responsibility in how we spend money.”

“Where are we going to cut spending elsewhere to pay for this?” he asked.

Tags Vin Weber Volodymyr Zelensky

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