When President Donald Trump was impeached in late 2019 after pressuring Ukraine’s leader for “a favor,” all while withholding $400 million in military aid to help confront Russian-backed separatists, even the staunchest defense hawks in the Republican Party stood virtually united by Trump’s side.
But as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military marched toward Kyiv this February, threatening not only Ukraine but the rest of Europe, Republicans and Democrats in Congress cast aside impeachment politics, rallied to Ukraine’s side and swiftly shipped billions to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defense.
The question ahead, as Ukrainians battle Russia’s grinding invasion now past its 100th day, is whether the rare bipartisanship on Capitol Hill is resilient enough to withstand Trump’s isolationist influences on his party or whether Republicans who yielded to Trump’s “America First” approach will do so again, putting military and humanitarian support for Ukraine at risk.
“Maybe there is a recognition on both Republican side and Democratic side that this security assistance is very important,” said Bill Taylor, a former ambassador to Ukraine, in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
“And maybe neither side is eager to crack that coalition.”
The fraught party politics comes at a pivotal moment as the Russian invasion drags on and the United States gets deeper into the conflict before the November elections, when lawmakers face voters with control of Congress at stake.
New polling from The Associated Press shows public support in the U.S. for punishing Russia over the war is wavering if it comes at the expense of the economy.
While Congress mustered rare and robust bipartisan support to approve a $40 billion Ukraine package, bringing total U.S. support to a staggering $53 billion since the start of the war, opposition on the latest round of aid came solely from the Republican side, including from Trump.
That is a warning sign over the sturdiness of the bipartisan coalition that the top Republican in Congress, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, tried to shore up when he led a delegation of GOP senators to stand by Zelenskyy’s side in a surprise trip to Kyiv last month.
“There is some isolationist sentiment in my party that I think is wrongheaded, and I wanted to push back against it,” McConnell told a Kentucky audience this past week, explaining his Ukraine visit.
The divisions within the GOP over Ukraine are routinely stoked by Trump, who initially praised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a “genius” negotiating strategy. Trump has repeatedly lashed out against the U.S. aid to Ukraine, including last weekend at a rally in Wyoming. Before the Senate vote on the $40 billion in assistance, Trump decried the idea of spending abroad while America’s “parents are struggling.”
As Trump considers whether to run for the White House in 2024, the persistence of his “America First” foreign policy approach leaves open questions about the durability of his party’s commitment to U.S. support for a democratic Ukraine. Senators are poised this summer to vote to expand NATO to include Sweden and Finland, but Trump has repeatedly criticized U.S. spending on Western military alliance.
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, among 11 Republican senators who voted against the Ukraine package, called the tally an “astronomical number” at a time when foreign policy should be focused elsewhere, including on China.
“That is nation-building kind of number,” Hawley said in an interview. “And I think it’s a mistake.”
It was nearly three years ago that Ukraine was at the center of U.S politics with the 2019 Trump impeachment proceedings that rocked Washington.
Zelenskky, a comedian turned politician, had just been elected when he asked Trump during a July 25, 2019, phone call for a meeting to strengthen U.S.-Ukraine relations and ensure military aid, according to a transcript released by Trump’s White House.
“We are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes,” Zelenskyy told Trump, referring to anti-tank weaponry Ukraine relies on from the West.
Trump replied: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”
Trump asked Zelenskyy to investigate Joe Biden, a chief Democratic rival to Trump at the time and now the American president, and Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
The impeachment investigation, sparked by a government whistleblower’s complaint over Trump’s call, swiftly became a milestone, the first in a generation since Democrat Bill Clinton faced charges over an affair with a White House intern.
During weeks of impeachment proceedings over Ukraine, witnesses from across the national security and foreign service sphere testified under oath about the alarms that were going off in Washington and Kyiv about Trump’s conversation with Zelenskyy.
Complicated stories emerged about the scramble by Trump allies to secure the investigations of the Bidens — and of the civil servants pushing back against what they saw as a breach of protocol.
Yet American opinions over the gravity of the charges against Trump were mixed, polling at the time by the AP showed.
Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House and acquitted by the Senate, with just one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, joining Democrats to convict.
“The allegations were all horse hockey,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., recalling his decision not to impeach.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., brushed back questions about whether Trump’s actions then played any role in Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine this February.
“It wasn’t like Putin invaded right after. It’s been almost two years,” Rubio said.
Republicans are quick to remind that Trump was, in fact, the first president to allow lethal arms shipments to Ukraine — something Barack Obama’s administration, with Biden as vice president, declined to do over worries of provoking Putin.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the co-chair of the Senate’s Ukrainian Caucus who persuaded Trump in a phone call to ultimately release the $400 million in aid, stood by his decision not to convict Trump over the delay of that assistance.
“As long as it was done,” Portman said about the outcome.
But Romney said people need to remain “clear-eyed” about the threat Putin poses to the world order. “I did the right thing at the time, and I haven’t looked back,” he said.
Democrats are blistering in their criticism of Republicans over the impeachment verdict.
“It’s a shame,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Every single Republican who voted in support of Donald Trump’s geopolitical shakedown and blackmail of Volodymyr Zelenskky and the Ukrainian people should be ashamed of themselves,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., “because the consequences of Donald Trump’s actions were understood to us then, and now the world understands.”