Ukraine Aid Divides Republicans, After Trump Tones Down His Resistance

Equipo
By Equipo
10 Min Read

The House vote on Saturday to provide $61 billion in American aid to Ukraine was the clearest sign yet that at least on foreign policy, the Republican Party is not fully aligned with former President Donald J. Trump and his “America First” movement.

But more Republicans voted against the aid than for it, showing just how much Mr. Trump’s broad isolationism — and his movement’s antipathy to Ukraine — has divided the G.O.P. in an election year.

Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for the third time, had actually soft-pedaled his opposition to Ukraine aid in recent days as the dam began to break on the House Republican blockade. He stood by Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who assembled the complicated aid packages for Ukraine, Israel and America’s Asian allies, and against threatened efforts to bring down Mr. Johnson’s speakership and plunge the House back into chaos. And he stayed quiet on Saturday, declining to pressure Republicans to vote no.

But few issues have been more central to the former president’s creed than his foreign policy isolationism, his call for Europe to raise military spending in its own backyard, and his foreign policy shift toward Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

Though he has in recent days stayed quiet, his most vociferous allies in the House, such as Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida, had led efforts to block the aid. Another pro-Trump firebrand, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, jeered Democrats during the vote as they waived Ukrainian flags on the House floor.

“Such an embarrassing and disgusting show of America LAST politicians!” she then wrote on social media. “You love Ukraine so much, get your ass over there and leave America’s governing to those who love THIS country!”

Ms. Greene criticized those in her party who supported the bill. “Mike Johnson’s House of Representatives, so proud to work for Ukraine. Not the American people!!! It’s despicable!”

Even Mr. Trump’s own son Donald Trump Jr. had joined in the castigation of Mr. Johnson and his handling of Ukraine aid. The most devoted acolytes of Mr. Trump still harbor a particular opposition to supporting Ukraine, which figures into conspiracy theories dating back to the 2016 election.

Such “opposition to Ukraine is still about whether they’re still hiding Hillary Clinton’s server or whether they tried to defeat him in the 2016 election,” said John R. Bolton, a former national security adviser to Mr. Trump, referring to disproved conspiracy theories about Ukraine. “It’s not really about a philosophy. It’s about Donald Trump.”

But the former president, wary of absorbing any public losses as he faces the first criminal trial of a former American president, had tried to have it both ways ahead of the vote. On social media he wrote that “Ukrainian Survival and Strength” was “important” to the United States, and asked, “Why isn’t Europe giving more money to help Ukraine? Why is it that the United States is over $100 Billion Dollars into the Ukraine War more than Europe, and we have an Ocean between us as separation!”

His assertion on Friday that “Germany and other European Countries have Massive Budget Surpluses, as we spend Billions to defend them!” earned him a “community note” on X since neither Germany nor the European Union as a whole have been running surpluses at all.

In truth, foreign policy has long been one of Mr. Trump’s weak spots in his control over the Republican Party. In December 2023, just before Republicans took control of the House, Congress passed a measure coauthored by a Trump ally, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, barring a president from unilaterally withdrawing the United States from NATO.

Mr. Rubio emphasized at the time that the measure was aimed at any president, but the target was clear. Mr. Trump has repeatedly suggested that he might try to withdraw the country from the trans-Atlantic military alliance. No other president has embraced such a position.

Still, the importance of the vote on Saturday was in the eye of the beholder: Were the 101 Republicans who broke with Mr. Trump’s isolationism the story, or were the 112 who voted against the aid?

Mainstream Republicans, such as Representative Larry Bucshon of Indiana, invoked a different Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in justifying their votes.

“Helping Ukraine win its fight against Russia is squarely in the best interest of the American people and our national security,” Mr. Bucshon said. “Vladimir Putin’s ambition doesn’t stop in Ukraine.”

But the most fiercely pro-Trump Republicans showed just how far they were willing to take their opposition. Twenty-one of them also voted against military aid to Israel, taking “America First” further even than their leader would.

“This is a direct result of Trump on the party, and it’s a shame the harm that he’s caused,” Mr. Bolton said.

Representative Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania and a leader of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, said he voted against the Israel aid package because it included humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“Giving $9 Billion to Hamas terrorists does not support Israel,” he wrote on social media. “That’s like beating somebody up just so you can pay for their hospital bill. I can’t criticize President Biden for being on both sides of the war and then vote to be on both sides of the war.”

For Mr. Trump, the aid package does not directly interfere with his own political stump speech. The former president’s most common take on the war in Ukraine has been to insist that, in an alternate version of history where he won in 2020, the war never would have happened. The mere fact of his leadership, he has said repeatedly, would have deterred Mr. Putin from invading.

He has also insisted that if he wins in November, he could have the war settled before inauguration, though he has not provided a specific plan around how he might do so. The resumption of large-scale military aid from the United States all but ensures that the war will be unfinished in Ukraine when Americans go to the polls in November.

“I will have the horrible war between Russia and Ukraine totally settled,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania last week. “I will settle it.”

But no doubt, House passage of aid to Ukraine without strings was a loss for the former president. In recent days, Mr. Trump revived the idea of making any aid a loan to the country, “instead of just a gift” — which didn’t happen.

Days later, Mr. Trump met with President Andrzej Duda of Poland in New York where, according to the Trump campaign, the two discussed the war in Ukraine and a proposal by Mr. Duda that NATO member states spend 3 percent on their defense.

The next day, Mr. Trump again insisted on social media that Europe needed to “equalize or match the money put in by the United States of America in order to help a Country in desperate need.”

That too has not happened.

Mr. Trump himself also helped link aid to Ukraine to another issue central to his campaign — border security — when he instructed Senate Republicans to kill a bipartisan border security measure that was hashed out to pass alongside a broader military aid package. That linkage reverberated on Saturday, said Representative Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina, who voted against the Ukraine bill.

Voters, she said, “are pissed about Ukraine aid without addressing our border first. Washington is out of touch with Middle America.”

But in keeping his options open, Mr. Trump was also calculated in his desire to keep his fingerprints off the vote. He made no effort to force Republicans to vote no. He lodged no threats, public or private.

And even as American funds again begin to flow, his central pitch to his voters remains intact: Only he can end the largest land war in Europe since World War II.

Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.

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