Are Some Republicans in Putin’s Back Pocket?

Heather Cox Richardson

Yesterday on the social media site X, formerly Twitter, Miles Taylor wrote: “After 2016, I helped lead the US gov[ernmen]t response to Russia’s election interference. In 2024, foreign interference will be *worse.* Tech[nology is] more powerful. Adversaries more brazen. American public more susceptible. Political leaders across party lines MUST UNITE against this.” 

Taylor served as chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security under Trump. 

Today, Catherine Belton of the Washington Post reported on a secret 2023 document from Russia’s Foreign Ministry calling for an “offensive information campaign” and other measures that attack “‘a coalition of unfriendly countries’ led by the United States. Those measures are designed to affect “the military-political, economic and trade and informational psychological spheres” of Russia’s perceived adversaries. 

The plan is to weaken the United States and convince other countries, particularly those in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that the U.S. will not stand by its allies. By weakening those alliances, Russian leaders hope to shift global power by strengthening Russia’s ties to China, Iran, and North Korea and filling the vacuum left by the crumbling democratic alliances (although it is not at all clear that China is on board with this plan).

According to Belton, one of the academics who advised the authors of the Russian document suggested that Russia should “continue to facilitate the coming to power of isolationist right-wing forces in America,” “enable the destabilization of Latin American countries and the rise to power of extremist forces on the far left and far right there,” increase tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, and “escalate the situation in the Middle East around Israel, Iran and Syria to distract the U.S. with the problems of this region.” 

The Russian document suggests that the front lines of that physical, political, and psychological fight are in Ukraine. It says that the outcome of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine will “to a great degree determine the outlines of the future world order.” 

Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky told Belton: “The Americans consider that insofar as they are not directly participating in the war [in Ukraine], then any loss is not their loss. “This is an absolute misunderstanding.”

Media and lawmakers, including those in the Republican Party, have increasingly called out the degree to which Russian propaganda has infiltrated American politics through Republican lawmakers and media figures. Earlier this month, both Representative Michael R. Turner (R-OH), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned about Russian disinformation in their party. Turner told CNN’s State of the Union that it is “absolutely true” that Republican members of Congress are parroting Russian propaganda. “We see directly coming from Russia attempts to mask communications that are anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia messages, some of which we even hear being uttered on the House floor.” When asked which Republicans had fallen to Russian propaganda, McCaul answered that it is “obvious.” 

That growing popular awareness has highlighted that House Republicans under House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) have for six months refused to pass a national security supplemental bill with additional aid for Ukraine, as well as for Israel and the Indo-Pacific, and humanitarian aid to Gaza. After the Senate spent two months negotiating border security provisions House Republicans demanded, Republicans killed that bill with the provisions at Trump’s direction, and the Senate then passed a bill without those provisions in February.

Johnson has been coordinating closely with former president Trump, who has made his admiration for Russia and his disregard for Ukraine very clear since his people weakened their support for Ukraine in the 2016 Republican Party platform. Johnson is also under pressure from MAGA Republicans in the House, like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who oppose funding Ukraine, some of them by making statements that echo Russian propaganda.

While the White House, the Pentagon, and a majority of both chambers of Congress believe that helping Ukraine defend itself is crucial to U.S. security, Johnson has refused to take the Senate measure up, even though the House would pass it if he did. But as Ukraine’s ability to defend itself has begun to weaken, pressure for additional aid has ramped up. At the same time, in the wake of Iran’s attack on Israel last weekend, Republicans have suddenly become eager to provide additional funds to Israel. It began to look as if Johnson might bring up some version of foreign aid.

But discussions of bringing forward Ukraine aid brought not only Greene but also Thomas Massie (R-KY) to threaten yesterday to challenge Johnson’s speakership, and there are too few Republicans in the House to defend him. 

Today, Johnson brought forward not the Senate bill, but rather three separate bills to fund Israel, the Indo-Pacific, and Ukraine, with pieces that House Republicans have sought. A fourth bill will include other measures Republicans have demanded. And a fifth will permit an up-or-down vote on most of the measures in the extreme border bill the House passed in 2023. At the time, that measure was intended as a signaling statement because House Republicans knew that the Democratic Senate would keep it from becoming law.

Johnson said he expected to take a final vote on the measures Saturday evening. He will almost certainly need Democratic votes to pass them, and possibly to save his job. Democrats have already demanded the aid to Gaza that was in the Senate bill but is not yet in the House bills. 

Reese Gorman, political reporter for The Daily Beast, reported that Johnson explained his change of heart like this: “Look, history judges us for what we do. This is a critical time right now…  I can make a selfish decision and do something that is different but I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing.… I think providing lethal aid to Ukraine right now is critically important.… I’m willing to take personal risk for that.”

His words likely reflect a changing awareness in Republican Party leadership that the extremism of MAGA Republicans is exceedingly unpopular. Trump’s courtroom appearances—where, among other things, he keeps falling asleep—are unlikely to bolster his support, while his need for money is becoming more and more of a threat both to his image and to his fellow Republicans. Today the Trump campaign asked Republican candidates in downballot races for at least 5% of the money they raise with any fundraising appeal that uses Trump’s name or picture. They went on: “Any split that is higher than 5% will be seen favorably by the RNC and President Trump’s campaign and is routinely reported to the highest levels of leadership within both organizations.”

Nonetheless, Greene greeted Johnson’s bills with amendments requiring members of Congress to “conscript in the Ukrainian military” if they voted for aid to Ukraine. 

A headline on the Fox News media website today suggested that a shift away from MAGA is at least being tested. It read: “Marjorie Taylor Greene is an idiot. She is trying to wreck the [Republican Party].” The article pointed out that 61% of registered voters disapprove of the Republican Party while only 36% approve. That approval rating has indeed fallen at least in part because of the performative antics of the extremists, among them the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that made him the first cabinet officer to be impeached in almost 150 years. Today the Senate killed that impeachment without a trial.

As soon as Johnson announced the measures, President Joe Biden threw his weight behind them. In a statement, he said: “I strongly support this package to get critical support to Israel and Ukraine, provide desperately needed humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, and bolster security and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Israel is facing unprecedented attacks from Iran, and Ukraine is facing continued bombardment from Russia that has intensified dramatically in the last month.

“The House must pass the package this week and the Senate should quickly follow. I will sign this into law immediately to send a message to the world: We stand with our friends, and we won’t let Iran or Russia succeed.”

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