Biden, Trump, Ukraine and Southwest Florida’s congressmen –Updated

President Donald Trump shares a laugh with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the United States, in the Oval Office on May 10, 2017. (Photo: TASS)

Feb. 21, 2022 by David Silverberg

–Updated Feb. 23 with new Donald Trump comments and additional images

As this is written, the world is on the brink of war. Russia could invade Ukraine at any moment.

But for all that, it’s worth standing back for a minute to compare the American response of President Joe Biden to the actions of former President Donald Trump.

Above all, the steps taken by the Biden administration to date have been rational, reasonable and sensible. The president has rallied and unified the allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin of the consequences of going to war against Ukraine and put in place the mechanisms to impose those consequences should war begin. He has exposed Russian plans for “false flag” operations and provocations aimed at sparking an invasion. His administration puts American concerns before the world in the United Nations. At the same time he has reached out to Putin and maintained a steady diplomatic dialogue to resolve differences peacefully while standing firm on core democratic and allied principles. He has kept the American public and the world informed of the state of play in a credible, truthful way. Most of all he has carefully and loyally advanced and defended the interests of the United States.

Contrast this to the irrationality, the unpredictability and the emotionality of Donald Trump. This was a man who divided and denigrated the NATO alliance. He was deferential to Putin to the point of subservience and hostile to longstanding allies. He was dismissive of the United Nations and world opinion. When it came to Ukraine, he saw it, not as a sovereign nation, but as little more than a source of dirt to attack his then-potential political rival. His interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were so improper and illegal he was impeached. He lied so constantly and repeatedly that nothing he said could be believed no matter how great the crisis. Worst of all he advanced Putin’s interests, he advanced his own interests, but he never substantively advanced or defended United States interests.

“All roads with you lead to Putin,” House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) memorably put it directly to Trump in a meeting in 2019.  

“All roads with you lead to Putin,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells President Donald Trump on Oct. 16, 2019.

“You couldn’t get a sharper contrast,” between the presidents, Fiona Hill, the steely national security expert who testified against Trump during his impeachment hearings, told CNN in an interview. “There’s no Team America for Trump. Not once did I see him do anything to put America first. Not once. Not for a single second.”

But perhaps the best take on the Trump-Putin relationship was satirical when, on Saturday Night Live in 2017, cast member Beck Bennett, playing Vladimir Putin, addressed Americans: “I promise we will take care of America,” he said, smiling wickedly at the camera. “It’s the most expensive thing we ever bought.” It was meant for laughs but spoke truer than anyone knew.

Beck Bennett as Vladimir Putin on Saturday Night Live on Jan. 22, 2017. (Image: SNL)

Under Trump, Russia was able to modernize and enlarge its armed forces from the woeful mess that fought in Chechnya to the powerful force that now stands arrayed on Ukraine’s borders. It’s not as though the United States and the West wasn’t warned. (For a particularly insightful and prescient look, see the 2019 study by the RAND Corp., Trends in Russia’s Armed Forces.) However, all this was done with the knowledge and abetment of Trump and his administration.

As though to confirm all this, yesterday, Feb. 22, Trump expressed his admiration for Putin on the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton radio show in an interview from Mar-a-Lago.

The exchange merits quotation in full:

Buck Sexton: Mr. President, in the last 24 hours we know Russia has said that they are recognizing two breakaway regions of Ukraine, and now this White House is stating that this is an “invasion.” That’s a strong word. What went wrong here? What has the current occupant of the Oval Office done that he could have done differently?

Donald Trump: Well, what went wrong was a rigged election and what went wrong is a candidate that shouldn’t be there and a man that has no concept of what he’s doing. I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, “This is genius.” Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.

So, Putin is now saying, “It’s independent,” a large section of Ukraine. I said, “How smart is that?” And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s strongest peace force… We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy… I know him very well. Very, very well. By the way, this never would have happened with us. Had I been in office, not even thinkable. This would never have happened. But here’s a guy that says, you know, “I’m gonna declare a big portion of Ukraine independent,” he used the word “independent,” “and we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace.” You gotta say that’s pretty savvy. And you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response. They didn’t have one for that. No, it’s very sad. Very sad.”

With Trump, for all his bluster and bombast, the core of American policy toward Russia was weak; Biden may not be loud or pompous but the essence of his policy is solid and substantial.

SWFL’s take

Predictably, Southwest Florida’s Republican members of Congress have been critical of Biden’s responses, although less so of Putin.

In a Feb. 19 interview on Fox News, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who does not live in his district, said the United States was “late to the game” and accused Biden of weakness.

“This is almost like Afghanistan re-done where some of the data elements have been there for some months but where has the administration been? What have they done? And then the tough talk comes late. But by that point things are already in motion. That looks like what’s coming in Ukraine right now.”

He called for a show of strength and criticized Biden for not going to the Munich meeting of European leaders and sending Vice President Kamala Harris instead.

However, when asked what the United States should be doing, he recommended exactly the actions the administration is taking.

“…We have to be very serious about Nord Stream 2,” he said. “That pipeline cannot go into existence at all. The other thing is that we have to have serious conversations with the rest of our allies in NATO about what are the defensive military components they’re going to need to make sure we stop a more aggressive Russia”—which is precisely what Biden has been doing, in contrast to Trump’s past attacks on NATO.

(Nord Stream 2 is an undersea natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that has been completed but is not yet operational. It has been subject to repeated sanctions from the United States. The Biden administration waived sanctions early in 2021 for geo-political reasons but, along with Germany, has stated the pipeline will be closed if Russia invades Ukraine.)

As a third measure, Donalds veered off into a call for support of Taiwan.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) similarly attacked Biden for weakness in a Feb. 9 interview on Newsmax, complaining that Biden had lifted sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline but is now threatening to reimpose them. He also called for imposition of sanctions but stopped short of calling for use of US troops.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) has not issued any public statements on Ukraine.

What is most striking about the Donalds and Steube statements is that they are calling for strength now while the groundwork for Russian actions were laid during the Trump administration, when both were ardent defenders and admirers of Trump. Although Donalds’ time in office only overlapped Trump’s by 17 days he has continued to be a devotee and was rewarded with a Trump endorsement on Dec. 13 of last year.

Understanding Putin

As the world proceeds into this crisis caused by Putin’s ambitions, it’s worth remembering Trump’s truly significant role in preparing this tragedy. If Ukraine is conquered it will join his betrayal of the Kurds in infamy.

While Republicans point fingers, it’s also worth remembering the person who really had Putin’s number and understood him better than anyone else—Hillary Clinton. The opening paragraph of her chapter on Russia in the book Hard Choices is as true today as when it was written:

“Hard men present hard choices—none more so than Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia. Putin’s worldview is shaped by his admiration for the powerful czars of Russian history, Russia’s long-standing interest in controlling the nations on its borders, and his personal determination that his country never again appear weak or at the mercy of the West as he believes it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wants to reassert Russia’s power by dominating its neighbors and controlling their access to energy. He also wants to play a larger role in the Middle East to increase Moscow’s influence in that region and reduce the threat from restive Muslims within and beyond Russia’s southern borders. To achieve these goals, he seeks to reduce the influence of the United States in Central and Eastern Europe and other areas that he considers part of Russia’s sphere, and to counter or at least mute our efforts in the countries roiled by the Arab Spring.”

At least now we have a president who understands what Putin is about and is determined to prevent him from succeeding—no matter how softly that president speaks.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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