Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is turning into a test of Donald Trump’s hold over the Republican Party. As Vladimir Putin wages war, spreads death and creates a major refugee crisis, Trump has called him "smart" and “savvy” and “genius.” The question then becomes whether Republicans will put any significant distance between Trump and themselves—and for this question, dodges must not be enough. But when CBS News’ Robert Costa asked Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley about Trump’s comments, they barely even dodged.
The standard Republican talking point on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been attacks on President Joe Biden combined with brief nods to Putin being a “tyrant” or “war criminal and deranged thug”—trying to have it both ways. But Republicans have to reckon with the leader of their party going all one way: To Putin.
Cruz and Hawley don’t seem worried about that reckoning. When Costa asked Cruz if he agrees with Trump’s assessment of Putin, Cruz went immediately to attacking Biden, saying, “Well, unfortunately, Putin is playing Joe Biden on the world stage, and it is a bad outcome for everyone.” After pitching his own podcast, Cruz did describe Putin as “a KGB thug, he is a mega maniacal maniac,” but not until after he had aligned himself with Trump by claiming Putin was “playing” Biden, without specifying exactly how that is supposedly happening—so far, Biden has helped coordinate a major international diplomatic response while drawing on intelligence to correctly anticipate Putin’s actions, removing the element of surprise.
Costa pressed, asking if Trump’s words were problematic. Cruz did the question-the-question dodge, saying, “I get the press always wants to get Republicans fighting amongst each other.” Well, Ted, sometimes when the leader of your party says something startling, you have to say what you think of it. Sometimes you have to be willing to have a fight with your usual allies, when they’re wrong. Of course, Cruz’s ambition and total shamelessness in pursuit of power mean he will keep sucking up to Trump as long as he thinks that’s where the power lies.
Costa pressed again, and Cruz busted out with the classic, “There are lots of things President Trump says that I wouldn’t say and his rhetoric, I with some regularity disagree with.” Then came the “But,” followed by a claim that Trump was the one who was really tough on Russia because he imposed sanctions on the Nord Stream II pipeline.
Similarly, Hawley declined to criticize Trump. Asked if he agrees that Putin is being “smart” and “savvy,” Hawley answered, “We’ll see. I mean, I think that Putin thinks he’s smart, for sure. He thinks that America is weak because he has seen what Joe Biden did.” After attacking Biden, Hawley continued, “So, I think Putin thinks this is an opportune time to attack and that’s why he’s doing it. We’ve got to make it our policy to make sure that that little bit that he’s taken doesn’t pay off. That it turns out to be a major, major error.”
Cruz and Hawley have some of the biggest egos and most outsized ambitions of any Republican politician, and they are betting that staying close to Trump is their best move. It’s unlikely we’ll hear too many Republicans straightforwardly praising Putin as Trump does, but they’re fine with it, even as Putin causes so much death and destruction. And the media is normalizing that stance, as it has normalized so many horrific positions coming from Trump and Republicans in recent years.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos
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