By Susan Milligan
Through all of Donald Trump’s problematic interactions involving Russia and Ukraine, Mike Pence stood by him, a loyal vice president.
He was loyal when Trump was criticized for cozying up to autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pence defended Trump after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election was released, questioning whether the very inquiry was “lawful at all.”
After the former president was impeached and acquitted on charges that Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Joe Biden and his son while holding up $400 million in military aid, Pence was still loyal.
“It’s over, America,” Pence crowed as he went on the campaign trail for the Trump-Pence ticket.
As another presidential election matchup starts to take shape, Pence is nowhere near Trump. On Thursday, the former vice president was at the Ukrainian border, meeting with refugees fleeing their homes from Putin’s invasion.
“The impact of the Russian invasion on these families is heartbreaking and the need for support is great,” Pence tweeted from the border, where he was on a trip organized by the Christian relief agency Samaritan’s Purse.
Pence has distanced himself rhetorically as well from the president he served for four years. At a GOP donor retreat last weekend, Pence said Republicans should not be seen as defending Putin, who is the target of international sanctions after his invasion of Russia’s western neighbor.
“Ask yourself, where would our friends in Eastern Europe be today if they were not in NATO? Where would Russian tanks be today if NATO had not expanded the borders of freedom?” he said. “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.”
And while Pence has not praised President Joe Biden for his handling of the crisis, he has very clearly separated himself from fellow Republicans who have blamed Biden – and not the Russian former KGB agent – for the deadly crisis in Ukraine.
“There will be time to assess steps America took in advance of Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine,” Pence tweeted Thursday. “But make no mistake, the blame for the evil unfolding across Ukraine today lies in one place & one place only: inside the Kremlin and on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin.”
Denouncing an invasion and a leader who has been almost universally castigated by the civilized world might seem like a no-brainer, especially for someone interested in exploring a run for president himself.
But for the emerging 2024 Republican presidential field, the matter is more politically fraught. As recently as last month, Trump praised Putin as a “genius,” and blamed Biden – not Putin – for the invasion. More recently, Trump has called the situation in Ukraine a “holocaust” and floated a widely derided suggestion – perhaps in jest – that the United States slap Chinese flags on American war planes, send them to fight Russian aggression in Ukraine and then sit back and watch as China and Russia war with each other.
“For all Republicans, including the potential Republican nominee (contenders) in 2024, it’s a very difficult time. There are these very weird political dynamics going on,” says Steven Webster, a political science professor at the University of Indiana Bloomington.
“The real leader of the Republican Party right now is pretty supportive of Russia, for whatever reason, saying Putin is a genius, so smart. It makes things very difficult for political rivals in 2024,” Webster says. “You don’t want to be seen as directly contradicting Trump. It could hurt you with his base, which is fervent and dedicated. But you also don’t want to be seen as soft on Russia,” Webster adds – particularly since the GOP prided itself on its toughness with the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Several potential 2024 contenders have their own histories with Russia and Ukraine to navigate as the crisis continues. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, has also been complimentary of Putin, calling him “savvy” and smart.
“He is a very talented statesman. He has a lot of gifts,” Pompeo told Fox News earlier this year, before Putin invaded Ukraine but during the time when national security experts worried a military offensive was brewing.
“He was a KGB agent, for goodness sakes. He knows how to use power. We should respect that,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo, who has already visited Iowa, the site of the first presidential caucuses, has a history with Ukraine as well. When a National Public Radio reporter asked if he owed an apology to Marie Yovanovitch, a career U.S. diplomat recalled from her ambassadorship to Ukraine, Pompeo erupted with anger and profanity, the NPR reporter, Mary Louise Kelly, said at the time.
“Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” Kelly reported that Pompeo shouted at her.
More recently, Pompeo has obliquely connected Putin’s aggression to the threat of sovereignty worldwide. In a visit earlier this month to Taiwan, Pompeo warned against Chinese aggression there.
“If any of us were mistaken or complacent about the risk to that freedom, I think we need only watch what’s taking place in Europe today to see that this continues to demand deep concerted focus leadership from those of us who cherish freedom,” Pompeo said in a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Nikki Haley, who was ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration and a possible 2024 contender, hasn’t praised Putin. But she has directed her criticism largely at Biden, saying he was “late to the game” in sanctioning Russia and was not advancing an energy agenda that would make the United States less reliant on foreign oil.
She also stood by Trump in general.
“This (Russian invasion) never would have happened under Trump,” Haley said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who led the GOP pack in a presidential straw poll by the Conservative Political Action Conference in February when Trump’s name was taken out of the list of options, hasn’t weighed in much on Ukraine.
Mostly, DeSantis – whose day job does not require him to get involved in foreign policy decisions – has hewed to the culture wars, arguing against masks and vaccine mandates, and promoting legislation to greatly restrict abortion and to ban the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools.
For GOP members of Congress who might step into the 2024 race, the approach has been to blame Biden. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has repeatedly refused, when asked, to criticize Trump’s warm remarks about Putin and has accused Biden of not doing enough to help the Ukrainian people.
On the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz delivered a speech castigating Biden for “weakness and appeasement” the Texas Republican said led to the Russian attack.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis indeed carries political problems for Biden, since the ban on Russian fossil fuels has worsened already — escalating gas prices at home. And early on, Biden gave a lengthy press conference where his remarks on Russia had to be clarified and cleaned up several times by his staff, notes Kevin Madden, a veteran GOP staffer and communications specialist.
“His potential 2024 opponents will reflexively criticize Biden, but their ability to truly capitalize and drive an effective contrast with Biden depends on them offering greater clarity and better options,” Madden says “Otherwise it’s just exactly that: reflexive criticism.”
And recently, Biden’s low approval ratings have started to tick upward, in large part because of increasing public support for his handling of the crisis in Eastern Europe.
A recent poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that 52% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the Ukraine situation, with 44% disapproving. That’s a big jump from February, when 34% approved of the president’s handling of the situation and 50% disapproved.
The crisis is “an opportunity for him to reset himself,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the poll. “Sometimes, bad things unite the country.” The comparison with the opposing party can also work to Biden’s advantage, Miringoff adds. “Republicans and Putin – it ain’t a pretty history,” he says.
Things could get worse for Biden if the crisis lingers, and American consumers – who now say they are willing to pay higher gas prices to punish Putin – tire of the economic hit they are taking. But for the 2024 GOP field, candidates may have some explaining to do, says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the centrist think tank NDN.
“There’s going to have to be a reckoning for the Republicans for their appeasement and encouragement of Putin,” Rosenberg says. “The last president was probably the greatest enabler and appeaser (of Putin) of all.”
Separating from Trump – should he decide not to run again – may be near the top of the campaign agenda.