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Picking the wrong side In Ukraine

York Dispatch editorial board
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures while speaking as U.S. President Donald Trump, left, looks on during their joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It’s disappointing but hardly surprising that former President Donald Trump has neither the cognizance nor the courage to repudiate Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s vicious invasion of Ukraine. The president’s reverence for the type of authoritarian he incorrectly views himself as is well documented.

Thus, the savage warfare being conducted against a sovereign people — the butchery that has unified the free world in support of Ukraine — is characterized by America’s 45th president as “savvy” and “genius.”

Predictably, this has elicited little more than mild rebukes from members of the party Trump ostensibly leads (he remains the frontrunner for the 2024 presidential nomination). Indeed, some have echoed the sentiments:

  • Former Secretary of State and 2024 GOP presidential hopeful Mike Pompeo praises Putin as “a very talented statesman” who should be respected.
  • GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona spoke last month at a pro-Putin event put on by a white nationalist group.
  • The talking heads in conservative media soft-pedaled the conflict, at least during the run-up to Russia’s invasion.

That the party of Ronald Reagan, who declared the Russian-led Soviet Union an “evil empire,” tempered its criticisms of Russia in recent years was a reflection of the esteem in which Trump holds Putin, whom he went so far as to defend against his own administration’s intelligence findings in an embarrassing and infamous 2018 press conference in Helsinki.

Even worse, this partywide embrace of Putin during the Trump administration came at the expense of Ukraine. Trump’s attempt to withhold U.S. foreign aid and a presidential meeting to extort political dirt out of Ukraine, an act for which he was rightly impeached, is simply the most memorable in a series of efforts to aid Putin in subjugating Ukraine. Trump also:

  • Fanned the flames of a conspiracy theory that erroneously blamed Ukraine, rather than Russia, for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
  • Put his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in charge of Ukraine relations (talk about meddling!).
  • Dismissed the widely respected U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
  • Made noise about pulling the United States out of NATO -- a move that would have vastly diminished the strong, U.S.-led response now countering Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

Thus, Trump has long been on the wrong side of this fight.

But don’t expect to hear much in the way of criticism from his party.

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming urged Americans to “reject the Putin wing of the GOP,” but that was in response to Gosar and Taylor Greene’s speeches. And former Vice President Mike Pence told a group of top GOP donors last week that, “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.” Except there is. And the apologist Pence refused to call out by name is the biggest.

Make no mistake, Republicans by and large have denounced Putin and the Russian invasion. How could they not? But in terms of countering Trump and like-minded Putin apologists, the response has been so muted that former Pennsylvania congressman Charlie Dent, a Republican, felt compelled to pen an opinion piece pleading for action. “The traditional wing of the GOP must now engage and join the fight,” he wrote.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham went so far as to call for Putin’s assassination, an overheated overreach for which he was rightly and roundly criticized — including by fellow Republicans.

Surely a party that sees the recklessness in formally sanctioning the extralegal execution of a world leader — even one so brutal and despotic as Putin — can recognize the peril in apologizing for that dictator’s actions at home.

Republicans who cannot or will not confront praise of a tyrant who is waging war — and quite possible war crimes — against peace-loving civilians must be held to account by their constituents at the ballot box. So, too, must any office-seeker disgorging such praise.