Pence says there's "no room" in GOP for Putin apologists. Let's check the tape.
Pence dutifully toed the anti-anti-Putin line when it was in fashion.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless invasion of Ukraine going poorly for him and heightening concerns about possible escalation into a hot war involving Russia and NATO, there’s lots of revisionist history going on in the Republican Party.
One case in point was a speech former Vice President Mike Pence gave Friday to GOP donors, when he proclaimed that “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.” That’s a much different tune than he once sang.
The Washington Post interpreted Pence’s comment as a “veiled swipe” at former President Trump, who of course is one of the world’s foremost Putin apologists and responded to Putin’s attack on Ukraine by variously describing him as “[a] genius,” “very savvy,” and “smart.” But what the Post’s article doesn’t mention is that Pence himself is as guilty of Putin apologia as anyone.
Consider comments Pence made during a September 2016 interview with CNN.
"I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country," he said.
You might be tempted to think that those comments only look bad with the benefit of hindsight, in light of the senseless brutality Putin has unleashed on the Ukrainian people. But in reality they were galling even at the time.
Putin oversaw the Russian Federation’s brutal second war in Chechnya; in 2006, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had exposed corruption in the Russian army during that war, was gunned down in the lobby of her hotel on his birthday. Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014. In 2015, prominent Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was assassinated just outside the Kremlin, heightening concerns about the quashing of dissent in the country. The next year brought the Russian government’s interference campaign in the US presidential election on Trump’s behalf. Pence made peace with all this before praising Putin on CNN.
There should’ve been no illusions about who Putin was in 2016. But from Trump defending Putin’s involvement in political assassinations in 2015 to his campaign making sure pro-Ukraine language was stripped out of the GOP platform the next year, Trumpworld’s anti-anti-Putin messaging had already raised major alarms by the time Pence made those comments that he now hopes are forgotten.
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The Putin apologia didn’t stop when Trump took office. In 2017 and ‘18, Trump repeatedly tried to roll back sanctions placed on Russia for interfering in the 2016 election. Perhaps even worse, Trump publicly mused about forming an “impenetrable cyber unit” with Putin — a proposal Marco Rubio memorably compared to “partnering with [Syrian dictator Bashar Al-]Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit.’” Trump also leaked classified information to the Kremlin, pushed for Russia to be let back in the G7, and was impeached for trying to use military aid to extort Ukraine. The list goes on and on.
But now that the free world stands united in opposition to Putin’s latest gambit, Republicans are trying to use the invasion to undermine President Biden, claiming Putin could’ve been deterred had Biden been tougher and that Putin wouldn’t have dared attack Ukraine while Trump was in office. Pence made this case during his speech last Friday, saying “it’s no coincidence that Russia waited until 2022 to invade Ukraine. Weakness arouses evil, and the magnitude of evil sweeping across Ukraine speaks volumes about this president.”
In reality, as journalist and Russia expert Sarah Hurst told me last month, the only sense in which the Trump-Putin bromance might have been protective of Ukraine was that “Putin had less incentive to undermine a president with whom he was aligned. Trump was causing chaos and division at home, which Putin enjoyed.”
You don’t have to take it from me or Hurst, however. Take it from former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton, who during a Newsmax interview last week said “it is just not accurate to say that Trump’s behavior somehow deterred the Russians. I think the evidence is that Russia didn’t feel that their military was ready.”
And in another interview with the Washington Post, Bolton went even further and confirmed what many people suspected — that Trump was eager to do Putin’s bidding by withdrawing the US from NATO, and planned to do it in his second term.
So while it’s good that Pence is belatedly speaking out with moral clarity against Russian aggression and Putin, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on when he argues that his administration was tough on Russia. And it’d be nice if outlets like the Washington Post would point this out, instead of omitting important historical context from their reporting.
Surprisingly, a good example of how to include important context came courtesy of Chuck Todd, who on Sunday didn’t let former Trump UN Ambassador Nikki Haley get away with implying that Biden’s weakness led to Russia’s war on Ukraine. After Todd referenced Trump’s long history of pro-Putin actions, Haley was reduced to arguing that Trump may have tried to help Putin, but he was ultimately stymied in most of those efforts.
“You kept saying ‘he tried’ — all I know is what he did,” she said.
Meanwhile, as Republicans nitpick Biden in an often-hypocritical manner, Trump is out there trying to start World War III with a series of reckless comments that should make everyone grateful he’s not currently in the situation room.
Trump is an arsonist
It’s obviously not in the interests of the US — or, frankly, the world — for China to invade Taiwan, or for the violence in Ukraine to escalate into a world war. But Trump just can’t help himself. He seems to be rooting for worst-case outcomes because they would provide fodder for him to undermine Biden.
During an interview last week with Maria Bartiromo, Trump claimed that “of course” China is going to invade Taiwan sometime soon, because “they're seeing how stupid the United States is run. They're seeing that our leaders are incompetent.”
Then, speaking to donors on Saturday, Trump mused about the US military staging false flag bombings in Ukraine aimed at drawing Russia and China into an armed conflict.
Trump made these comments publicly, but his private comments seem to be just as irresponsible. On Friday, video emerged of golfer John Daly talking to Trump on speaker phone. Trump can be heard claiming that when he was in office, he threatened Putin that if he moved on Ukraine, he planned to bomb Moscow.
“Taiwan will be next,” Trump said.
Pointing out the looniness of Trump’s comments isn’t idle whataboutism — he remains the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination. And the very same Republicans who are reaching to criticize Biden for not doing enough to deter authoritarianism are silent about the leader of their party openly sympathizing with the motives of autocrats. It’s almost like their criticisms aren’t coming from a place of good faith.