By Gabby Orr and Steve Contorno, CNN
Despite its Trump-loving crowd, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference became a venue this week for top Republicans to set themselves apart from each other and, in some cases, from the former President as they sharply condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin and his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Some guest speakers — from Republican senators to senior Trump administration officials — accused Putin of tormenting Ukraine, forcing its people to flee their homes and splitting families apart.
“I don’t know if you’ve watched the images in the last 48 hours. … You have 70-something-year-old men, elderly women, younger children taking up arms … These are people that are basically saying, ‘We refuse to be Putin’s slaves. We refuse to live under tyranny,’ ” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told the audience.
Others demanded a US posture of peace through strength — littering their remarks with references to former President Ronald Reagan — or took aim at President Joe Biden, blaming his supposedly weak leadership for Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
“We’ve seen a Russian dictator now terrorize the Ukrainian people because America didn’t demonstrate resolve that we did for the four years prior,” said former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 2024.
“It was Reagan’s model; it was the model that we used for four years in the Trump administration. We put America first and we told people around the world, you cannot tread on us,” Pompeo added.
Unlike his top diplomat, former President Donald Trump seemed to side with Putin in the lead up to Russia’s military action. In the hours after Putin ordered troops into eastern Ukraine on Monday, Trump said of the authoritarian leader, “This is genius. Putin declares a big portion 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?'”
Trump — who is scheduled to appear at CPAC on Saturday — then reportedly doubled down in a Wednesday night speech to Republican donors at his Mar-a-Lago estate, calling Putin “tough” while discussing the deadly situation in Ukraine, according to The Washington Post. The comment wasn’t unusual for the former President, who would routinely compliment Russia’s leader during his time in office and publicly sided with him over US intelligence officials during a stunning July 2018 press conference in Helsinki, where Putin denied any meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Matt Schlapp, a top Trump ally and chairman of the American Conservative Union, said in an interview with CNN that the former President “has every right to opine” when asked about Trump’s glowing comments about Putin. Schlapp added that Trump built a coalition inside the Republican Party that is less likely to support the deployment of additional US resources to Europe to respond to Russia’s aggression.
“I think there’s a feeling like you got to tell us what’s in America’s interest and then we’ll consider whether or not we support that. They want to be convinced it’s in our national interest,” Schlapp said.
At times during this year’s CPAC conference, the general audience reacted more viscerally — and vocally — to mentions of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been locked in a battle with truckers who are protesting Covid-19 vaccine mandates, than they did to Putin’s name, even as civilians were being struck in Ukraine and US intelligence officials warned that the country’s capital of Kyiv could fall under Russian control within days.
While some elected Republicans danced around the topic entirely, perhaps the sharpest contrast came from two leading conservative commentators — both of whom have inhabited influential roles in Trump’s orbit. K.T. McFarland, a former deputy national security adviser in the Trump White House, was unequivocal about the danger Putin poses to the West, warning CPAC attendees that Russia’s cozy relationship with Beijing represents “the biggest threat to the US in our history.”
“Vladimir Putin doesn’t stop with Ukraine,” said McFarland, a regular guest on Fox News.
But Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA who is close to Trump’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr., dismissed the European crisis as a distant problem, claiming that the influx of undocumented immigration across the US-Mexico border is a more pressing matter for the Biden administration to address.
“I don’t want to hear lectures about why we need to send our troops halfway across the world while we are being invaded,” Kirk said.
Other potential GOP presidential contenders weigh in
For his part, Biden has repeatedly opposed the deployment of US soldiers to Ukraine, though his administration has committed to mobilizing some forces already in the region and possibly sending additional troops to Germany.
“Our forces are not, and will not be, engaged in a conflict with Russia in Ukraine. Our forces are not going to Europe to fight in Ukraine, but to defend our NATO allies and reassure those allies in the East,” Biden said.
But at CPAC, where Republican presidential hopefuls traditionally test the waters with the party’s most active voters, several contenders top GOP leaders used their brief moment in the spotlight to make a case against the siting president’s capacity to lead.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another rumored GOP presidential hopeful, called on Biden to take tougher action against the Putin regime during her appearance here.
“A strong American president would work with European partners to replace their supplies of Russian oil with American energy and they would hit Putin where it actually hurts — on the Russian energy sector,” Noem said in a speech Friday.
“If Joe Biden can’t or won’t do these things, then he should resign,” she added to stifled applause from the crowd.
Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, the early favorite for the Republican presidential nomination if Trump doesn’t run again in 2024, omitted any mention of Ukraine in his opening day speech at the conservative gathering. DeSantis reserved his ire not for Putin and Russia, but for Western nations that have adopted strict measures to mitigate the coronavirus. He specifically called out Australia and Canada.
“There are people that look to Florida as the citadel of freedom, who are chafing under authoritarian rule all across the world,” DeSantis said, before reading aloud a letter he said was from an Australian fan.
While many CPAC speakers avoided taking a position on Russia’s aggression, those who did weigh in on the deadly crisis trained their criticism not on Putin but on Biden and his administration’s energy policies — claiming that Biden has ignored US domestic energy resources and instead created increased dependency on outside nations and emboldened Putin, whose country’s top export is oil.
“Mr. President, have some confidence in the American people, show some strength to the world, open up American energy production full throttle — open it up right now. “Put Americans back to work,” said Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley in a speech Thursday afternoon, adding that he intended to introduce legislation to rescind regulations that have slowed fossil fuel extraction in the US and restart the Keystone XL oil pipeline connecting Canada to Gulf Coast refineries when he returned to Washington following his appearance at CPAC.
In his own remarks, top Trump ally Ric Grenell blasted Biden for abandoning an “America First foreign policy” that Grenell claimed was faithfully executed under Trump.
“We must not let the Biden administration drag us back into the unsuccessful policies of the past and unnecessary wars,” he said.
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