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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Republicans push hard line on Russia while defending Trump’s NATO comments

Senator Tim Scott delivers remarks at former President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in North Charleston, S.C., Feb. 14, 2024. (Kendrick Brinson/The New York Times)

By Annie Karni

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said Sunday that President Vladimir Putin of Russia was a “murderous dictator” responsible for the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and that “we need strong leadership coming from America that actually pushes back against Russia and other dictators.”

Then Scott followed up with the leap of logic that many ambitious Republicans have employed in trying to toe a tough line on Russia while pledging fealty to a former president who has done the opposite. He said the one man for that job was Donald Trump.

“Unfortunately, Joe Biden is not up for that charge, and Donald Trump is,” Scott, who has been mentioned as a potential running mate for Trump, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Scott’s comments on the Sunday television circuit were a reflection of the fear that congressional Republicans with political ambitions have of alienating Trump and his base: They purport to take a hard line against Russia while being careful not to say anything that could antagonize the former president.

Trump has recently said he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies that do not contribute sufficiently to collective defense. And during the 2016 election, Trump’s campaign sought close contacts with Russian government officials who were helping him get elected, according to a bipartisan congressional report.

On Sunday, Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it was “very, very important for the United States to stand strong and stand with Ukraine.” He warned of the effects of allowing Russia to continue its aggression, noting that it would “jeopardize other areas of Europe.”

But when pressed about Trump’s recent comment encouraging Russia to attack NATO allies, he downplayed it and defended the former president. “This is what I know,” Turner said. “Donald Trump’s political rallies don’t really translate into Donald Trump’s actual policies.”

He added, “If you look at his policies, if you look at his record, he actually increased funding for NATO, increased the European Reassurance Initiative,” which bolsters the readiness of forces in Europe.

Scott, for his part, also ignored the fact that Trump has remained silent in the days after Navalny’s death, avoiding a question from Jake Tapper of CNN on Sunday about why that was and whether he wanted Trump to say something.

“I think a better question is, let’s look at the middle of the challenges we face today,” he said. “What you see front and center is the failure of Joe Biden.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that he wanted to make Russia “pay a price for killing Navalny” by designating the country as a state sponsor of terrorism.

“They deserve this designation,” he said. “Putin’s been killing people, opposition leaders, for decades now. He’s dismembered Syria. He’s one of the world’s worst actors and an indicted war criminal.”

But Graham has also been defending Trump’s comments about NATO. And he voted against a Senate foreign aid package sending funding to Ukraine, saying he would support critical aid for Kyiv only if it were in the form of a loan, an idea pitched by Trump.

The former president has opposed sending more aid to Ukraine, putting pressure on Speaker Mike Johnson to block from the House floor a $95 billion assistance package for Israel and Ukraine that the Senate overwhelmingly passed last week.

Johnson said last week that Navalny’s death was “emblematic of Putin’s global pattern of silencing critics and eliminating opponents out of fear of dissent.” He added that “as Congress debates the best path forward to support Ukraine, the United States and our partners must be using every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine.”

But Johnson has also suggested that he has no intention of allowing the bill to receive a vote on the House floor.

Liz Cheney, a former Republican representative from Wyoming whose criticism of Trump led to her ousting from Congress, said the best way to deter Putin was for the House to pass the bill.

“One man, one man has the power to get that done, and that’s Mike Johnson,” Cheney said on “State of the Union.”

She said the bill could be on Biden’s desk awaiting his signature tomorrow if Johnson chose to bring it to the floor for a vote.

“Mike Johnson ought to search deep in his conscience,” Cheney said, adding: “He has said, and I take him at his word, that he believes God has told him that he’s called to be Moses. I think Mike Johnson ought to look at whether or not this is actually that moment.”

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