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Republicans take sides for a Trump-fueled tug of war over Russia

<i>Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Recently
SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images
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By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst

Recently, ex-President Donald Trump proudly declared, “What’s happening with Russia and Ukraine would never have happened under the Trump administration. Not even a possibility!”

That may actually be true. After all, just a couple of years ago, Trump was impeached for trying to use Ukraine to dig up dirt on his potential presidential rival Joe Biden. He tried to push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” and investigate Biden and his son, Hunter — all while holding up almost $400 million in crucial military aid. Remember that “perfect” phone call?

So, yeah, given Trump’s predilection to hug Russia and blackmail Ukraine — a fledgling democracy — it’s probably a good bet that Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t be pulling these particular tricks right now. I mean, Trump was his guy. When Bill O’Reilly pointed out to Trump that Putin was a killer, he demurred. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump said. ” … You think our country’s so innocent?”

All of which brings us to the current state of affairs, and a puzzling conundrum for Trumpist Republicans. After four years of silently watching — or supporting — Trump complimenting the Russian President (tweeting, “I always knew he was very smart!”), and dissing US intelligence agencies on issues like Russian election interference (“President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”), what are they to do now that Russia has 100,000 troops at the Ukrainian border? Fearless leader Trump has predictably done little more than blast Biden’s so-called “weakness” (still an all-time favorite word). But what about suggesting an actual way to deal with Putin’s aggression? Nada.

So the party that was once defined by its strong anti-Russian stance is caught between a Trump and a hard place: the more traditional anti-Putin hawks (who, post-Trump, have somehow found their sea legs again) vs. the still-practicing Trumpist isolationists (with some fanaticism thrown in).

Lately, it’s hard to avoid the Tucker Carlson wing of the GOP, as he publicly wonders, why take Ukraine’s side over Putin’s side? As Republican Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio told him on Fox, “We’re on the side of democracy.” But never mind. And how about this? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, has woven a tale that Biden apparently wants war because Ukraine “has the dirt on Hunter Biden.” Oh, and on the President himself. No proof, of course.

Sad to say, the GOP created this distasteful stew, and now the party is stuck with it. So what to do?

“The Republicans I work with are barely even commenting on this stuff. They ignore them,” says a Senate Democrat involved in foreign policy. “The folks who spent the last four years in the thrall of Trump are struggling how to reset as a party,” he adds. ‘Those who are unwilling are in full isolationist mode.”

For those who choose to remain in Trump’s thrall, it’s easy. Stick with it and see where it gets you. Just take the policy-free route and complain about Biden’s weakness. It’s probably going to work in GOP primaries: A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found that just 6% of Republicans trust Biden to negotiate with Putin. Three-quarters of Democrats had faith in his abilities.

But for the more serious others looking for long-term solutions for the GOP and the nation, it’s not easy to turn the proverbial battleship around — particularly when the powerful ship’s captain may run for the presidency again. The Senate could vote on sanctions on Russia soon, and some Republicans will support the administration’s actions. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Biden is moving in the “right direction.”

Others, including Trump, no doubt will blame Biden for not being tough enough.

How about this idea? “Republicans ought to stand to protect Ukraine from Putin,” says GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. “Encourage Biden to take strong action.”

Voters, Newhouse adds, “want to know if the President has stood up to Putin and shown a stiff spine.”

Post-Trump, maybe it’s hard for some Republicans to get back to basics on foreign policy. Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close Biden ally, told me he can see this internal GOP friction playing out: those Republicans “struggling to determine what’s the best path forward at a moment when Russian aggression is further strengthening NATO vs. those whose isolationism and leanings towards Russia are distracting” those more aligned with the traditions of the GOP.

No doubt Putin — and American allies — are wondering who will win the tug of war. And the whole world is watching.

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