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Why Republicans are divided on support for Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you're a student of history and if you keep up with international affairs now, here's something that you might have found particularly jarring in recent weeks and months - an array of conservative pundits and lawmakers downplaying, even dismissing Russia's pressure campaign against Ukraine.

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JOSH HAWLEY: And right now, we've got to put American security interests first. And that means we've got to focus on China, and we've got to focus on our own borders. We need to ask our European allies to do more.

MARTIN: That was U.S. Senator Josh Hawley speaking with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. One of the ideas once unifying the Republican Party was opposition to Russia's communist influence around the world. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was hope for a new era of international cooperation or at least detente. But now with the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Republicans aren't just divided. Some are actively working against support for the only nation-state with a functional democracy. So how did that happen?

We called Steve Schmidt to get his take on this. He is a former Republican strategist. He worked on President George W. Bush's reelection campaign, Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign for governor of California and the late Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential run. He left the Republican Party after the election of Donald Trump and co-founded a group formed to oppose him. And he's with us now. Steve Schmidt, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

STEVE SCHMIDT: It's a real pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: So until you left the Republican Party, you spent pretty much your adult life in Republican politics and policy. So how important was anti-communism as a core value of the GOP at that time?

SCHMIDT: Well, it wasn't just a core value of the Republican Party. It was a core value of national politics, manifested, you know, by the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, John Kennedy, who was a giant foe of communism. And the Cold War ended essentially on Ronald Reagan and George Bush 41's watches. And this U.S.-led, rules-based world that the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights exists in, free trade, the idea that borders are not breakable or movable by a greater power invading - and what the Russians are asserting regarding Ukraine, which is a giant country with 40 million people, is that we can invade and shatter an international boundary and border because we are the stronger nation. And that's the hour the world stands upon.

MARTIN: I think people will remember, you know, even now, even people who didn't live through that era, that sort of - that's kind of one of those iconic Ronald Reagan moments of President Reagan famously telling the then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. I mean, to this day, if you don't know any other moment from the Reagan presidency, then you probably know that one. So how did it get to some members downplaying Russian actions and actually criticizing efforts to defend and support Ukraine? How did that happen?

SCHMIDT: It means something when Tucker Carlson goes to Hungary and fetishizes Viktor Orban. It means something when the largest grassroots organization in the Republican Party says that we will hold our conference in Hungary, a country teeming with anti-Semitism with an autocratic-ish leader who's taken control mostly of the nation's media. And you look at Turkey, where 35,000 people have been locked up in recent years for insulting the president, right? This is the vision that they like, right? This is the autocratic fetish - right? - that they have. This new fascism is ascendant in countries all over the world to subvert as much as they can this idea of the U.S.-led liberal global order, which has worked pretty well, in my estimation, for the last 75 years.

MARTIN: What is the vision of someone like one of the - you mentioned Tucker Carlson. He's a major voice in conservative media at Fox News. As you mentioned over the last couple of months, he's repeatedly questioned U.S. support for Ukraine, attacked Republicans who disagree with him, even making a visit to sort of Hungary. But, like, what's his vision? What's the idea here? What's the endgame here?

SCHMIDT: If you made me guess, I would say he wants power and money. But I think it's important to historically understand - Colonel Robert McCormick, who ran The Chicago Tribune, I think, they published the codes or the fact that the United States had broken the Japanese codes, and that was why we had been successful in Midway. And he did it because he hated Roosevelt. This was one of the most important secrets of the war. We have always had no shortage of people in this country that are susceptible to this type of stuff. And so we're seeing right now a political philosophy forming.

It means a great deal when you have a Republican National Committee, one of only two major political parties in the country, embrace the chaos and murderous insurrection and the violence, the defecation in the hallways of the Capitol, the urinating on the walls as legitimate political discourse, right? So all of this - right? - is part of a movement in this country, an ongoing event, a worsening situation, a growing hostility to the basic covenant between us around how we apportion and share power lawfully, not in a world where it's just taken by the strong, who could do whatever they want to the weak. That's what's on the table here, both internationally and domestically.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, do you think that not just the Biden administration but those remaining within the Republican Party who see the world as you do, who see the sort of post-Cold War world order in jeopardy here - are they doing enough to make that case to the American people, who, for whatever reason, whether it's the skeptics in Congress, whether it's their, you know, Fox News, whatever - do you think they're doing enough to sort of make the case to the American people?

SCHMIDT: My personal view is that the answer to that question is no. That being said, I think that President Biden, who has come out now twice to brief the nation about these momentous events, has been superb in explaining and explicating what's happening. And at a personal level, I would, you know, hope to see him do more of that, to walk out behind the presidential podium every day and, I would hope also, at every opportunity, address the Russian people. That - here in the United States, we have millions of Russians, tens of millions who've built lives in this land. The Russian people are our friends. We don't wish suffering for Russian mothers and the death of their children in a war caused by Vladimir Putin. I hope the president will explain that to the Russian people and remember that he speaks to the entire world every time he appears from behind the presidential podium. And so we are at the edge of a momentous event that is entirely within the control of Vladimir Putin to trigger into a momentous tragedy or to de-escalate it. And we will see what happens in these next days as Russian forces continue to congregate and surround Ukraine ready for offensive military action. They are in an offensive posture. Make no mistake about that. And I think the world hangs on the edge of witnessing the first major war of the 21st century.

MARTIN: Well, those are sobering words. That's Steve Schmidt. He's a former Republican strategist who worked for President George W. Bush, the late Senator John McCain. And he's the co-founder of the Lincoln Project, which was formed to oppose former President Donald Trump and his influence on the Republican Party. Steve Schmidt, thanks so much for talking with us.

SCHMIDT: My pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: He joined us via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.