CPAC: Why Republicans and Trump suddenly have an unexpected Putin problem

Days into Russian forces’ unprovoked incursion into Ukraine, the tide appears to be turning against Mr Putin among Republicans at CPAC, Richard Hall and Andrew Feinberg report

Saturday 26 February 2022 13:29 GMT
Republican U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds gives a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S. February 25, 2022. REUTERS/Octavio Jones
Republican U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds gives a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S. February 25, 2022. REUTERS/Octavio Jones (REUTERS)

In the five years since Vladimir Putin ordered Russian hackers to break into Democratic National Committee email systems and conduct a widespread social media campaign to boost Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the idea that the Russian dictator was an ally of the Republican Party gained widespread traction among Democrats.

Such a notion is a 180-degree reversal from the Russia-averse stance held by the GOP under previous presidents, with many Republicans citing Ronald Reagan’s role in bringing down what he called the USSR’s “Evil Empire” as an achievement on par with Abraham Lincoln’s effort to win the US civil war in the 1800s.

Yet the idea that the GOP is aligned with Moscow has remained an article of faith among some Democratic activists, who’ve pointed to statements by Mr Trump lavishing praise on Mr Putin.

It was that partisan sentiment – and Mr Trump’s recent decision to call Mr Putin a “genius” recognizing two break-away regions of eastern Ukraine ahead of his all-out assault – that led a Democratic political action committee to hire an airplane to tow a banner reading “Putin Welcomes CPAC to Orlando” above the Florida site of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where Mr Trump is set to speak on Saturday.

But Mr Putin’s order to invade Ukraine and shatter the peace Europe has enjoyed since 1945 may have cost him what little support he has had among the Republican grassroots.

A few Republican bold-faced names – such as ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his former boss, Mr Trump – have been willing to lavish praise upon the Russian dictator over the last few weeks, and in the days since the invasion rank-and-file GOP officeholders have been far more likely to blame US President Joe Biden for the Russian attack, rather than attribute responsibility to the Russian president.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (AP)

Prominent right-wing media figures such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson were also siding with Mr Putin earlier this week, with Mr Carlson asking his audience why they’d harbour negative feelings towards the Russian leader.

“It might be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious: What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years?” Mr Carlson asked his audience before informing them of the correct answer: “No”.

And as recently as last month, polling showed Mr Putin holding higher approval ratings among Republican voters than Mr Biden. One Economist/YouGov poll conducted late last month showed as many as 15 per cent of Republicans had a favourable view of him.

On Thursday, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp told The Independent the apparent GOP support for the Russian dictator could have been a knee-jerk reaction to negative coverage of Mr Trump stemming from the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential race.

“I think there's been constant ridiculous coverage of Russia, of Putin's Russia, Putin and Russia. And I'm not sure that the American people really understand what a tyrant he is because the people who have led the coverage on Putin wrapped it up in their hatred of Donald Trump,” he said.

Matt Schlapp, Chairman of the American Conservative Union, looks on as he takes part in a panel discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S. February 25, 2022. REUTERS/Marco Bello (REUTERS)

But three days into Russian forces’ unprovoked incursion into Ukraine, the tide appears to be turning against Mr Putin.

The rank-and-file Republicans who spoke to The Independent at CPAC had a far different view of Mr Putin’s actions than their party’s putative leaders.

Florida Representative Byron Donalds, a first-term GOP member of the House of Representatives, told The Independent he was unaware of what his colleagues were saying about who was responsible for the attack on Ukraine.

While Mr Donalds offered some criticism of Mr Biden’s conduct of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and his decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, the Florida congressman said the “number one thing” is that Mr Putin’s actions are “totally unconscionable and unacceptable”.

“Nobody has the right to invade another country and just topple it because he decided to reach back in the past and say ‘oh, there's some Russians there,’” he said. “The last tyrant that made that kind of a decision was Adolf Hitler, and history knows about him”.

One GOP congressional hopeful, Arkansas House candidate Conrad Reynolds, told The Independent that Mr Putin had “overplayed his hand” and forced Nato to decide “if they want to do something or not” to counter his aggression”.

“You’ve got a bully who is beating up on the little kid, taking his milk money and everybody is standing around watching,” said Mr Reynolds, a US Army veteran who retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Mr Reynolds added that what Russia is doing to Ukraine was “an occupation”.

“They want control and the people who live there don’t want to be controlled — the free nations of the world have to stick together,” he said.

Continuing, Mr Reynolds said the apparent disconnect between the traditional Republican disdain for Russia and the Trump-era Russophilia displayed by some in the GOP can be explained by a split between “real conservatives” – a category in which he placed himself – and “the Republican Party”.

“I’m a real conservative from Arkansas and I see it like – we have an old saying in Arkansas, when I see a turtle on the fence post, it didn’t get there by itself. I didn’t have to see someone put it there. I know from logic and common sense that someone put it there. And that’s the way I look at the situation in Ukraine,” he said.

People attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S. February 24, 2022. REUTERS/Octavio Jones (REUTERS)

Another CPAC attendee, Adam Thompson, was more willing to criticise other Republican ex-presidents for having been soft on Mr Putin – but not Mr Trump.

He told The Independent: “Three of the last four presidents, including Bush, have had Putin seize territory from nations. It didn’t happen under Trump’s watch and I think that’s all that needs to be said”.

Mr Thompson also said the pro-Putin faction among the GOP was a “fringe outlier”, and suggested Mr Trump’s apparent praise of the Russian dictator was merely the ex-president’s way of saying Mr Putin was “not an idiot”.

Attendee Daniel Hess said he was “honestly surprised” by the brutality of Russian’s actions over the last few days.

“It’s shocking. It looks like there’s a lot of bloodshed,” he said. “I think we’ve had a huge amount of new information in the last couple of days. Almost everybody is surprised. I think even the Russian people are surprised”.

Continuing, Mr Hess told The Independent he thinks Mr Putin “has made a terrible mistake,” and while he stressed that he never considered himself “pro-Putin” he said his view of the Russian leader “has gotten considerably dimmer in the last 48 hours”.

“The world that he sees is not the world that we live in. You can’t act that way. Violence is not the answer,” he said.

Yet the putative pro-Putin faction still holds tremendous sway within the GOP.

Mr Carlson, the Fox News host, slightly walked back his previous comments absolving Mr Putin of blame on Thursday by acknowledging that Mr Putin “started this war”, which he called a “tragedy”.

And on Friday, a featured “special guest” at the American Conservative Union’s annual Ronald Reagan dinner will be ex-Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat and frequent guest on Mr Carlson’s show, who has blamed Nato’s expansion – not Mr Putin’s imperial ambitions – for the violence Russia has touched off.

The frozen-food-heir-turned-Fox-News-star’s affinity for Mr Putin even appears to be turning off die-hard fans in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

One self-described “huge Tucker Carlson fan”, Maryland pastor Jim Boothby, told The Independent he spent Thursday taking calls from a fellow man of the cloth in Ukraine, a place where many of his own congregants have roots.

“We got a phone call yesterday from the bishop of the church there who said: ‘we’re trying to buy weapons to protect our wives and children,’” Mr Boothby recalled.

“He said after they couldn’t buy weapons, [they] went to the stores to try to buy baseball bats, and they were sold out. So screw Tucker Carlson, I don’t give a shit,” he said. “This is 2022 - these people don’t want to be owned, dominated and directed by Russia”.

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