The Good Republicans’ Last Stand

Will enough of Trump’s party finally be willing to stick up for Ukraine rather than follow his lead and bow to Russia?

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson addressing the press in the Capitol
Haiyun Jiang / NYT / Redux

After weeks of backroom maneuvering, the Republican split over foreign policy has burst into full view. The immediate stakes are the survival of Ukraine and the credibility of NATO. But behind the crisis of today is a larger crisis of tomorrow: U.S.-led defense of collective security, global trade, and the vitality of democracy as a force in the world.

That split in the GOP emerged over the weekend in two starkly contrasting stories, each pointing toward a very different American future.

At a rally in South Carolina on Saturday, ex-President Donald Trump denounced NATO allies and said that he “would encourage” Russia to attack them. By Sunday, many elected Republicans were making the usual excuses for Trump. Senator Marco Rubio appeared on CNN to say that he has “zero concern” about Trump’s latest pro-Moscow outburst: “He doesn’t talk like a traditional politician, and we’ve already been through this. You would think people would’ve figured it out by now.”

Yet that same day, 17 Republican senators joined Democrats to speed assistance to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan by a filibuster-proof majority. Most observers reckon on a cross-party majority in the House of Representatives for the bill to aid these democratic U.S. allies.

Pro-Trump, anti-Ukraine Republicans look to the Republican House leadership to prevent the measure from coming to a vote in the House. Speaker Mike Johnson is loyal to Trump and has tilted strongly against Ukraine over the past year. But his hold on the House is weak, and he has been losing important votes.

The day before Trump’s South Carolina rally, a bipartisan delegation of House members arrived in Kyiv. The delegation included the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Turner. After the delegation’s return, Turner today expressed his confidence that Johnson would allow a vote in the House.

But the pro-Trump faction is not done. Also today, the leading anti-Ukraine senator, J. D. Vance, published an op-ed that predicted a rocky future for the Senate aid bill in the House, “where leadership there cannot bring it up to the floor without endangering House Speaker Mike Johnson.” He went on:

Democrats could try to force House leadership to bring up Ukraine aid with a discharge petition, an approach that would hand control of the House floor over to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries with the aid of a few House Republicans. Speaker Johnson could fight this maneuver aggressively. If he does, he will be attacked by Senate Republican leaders, at least privately, and will face another negative news cycle. If he doesn’t, his own conference will turn against him.

Vance’s assurance in that scenario, however, faces an additional challenge. Tomorrow, a special election will be held in the third district of New York, formerly represented by the Republican fraudster George Santos. The moderate Democrat Tom Suozzi has a narrow lead in the polls. If Suozzi wins, the already desperately narrow Republican majority in the House diminishes further—and the odds of forcing a House vote on the Senate’s aid bill suddenly improve.

In the most frigid days of the Cold War, a writer named Allen Drury published a novel set in the Senate about a behind-the-scenes battle to protect the U.S. government against the influences of foreign dictators and domestic demagogues. In the introduction to his 1959 novel, Advise and Consent, Drury offered this promise and warning to readers: “The fate of our country is not determined by the outcome of elections, but by the dedication and character of those we entrust with power.”

The Trump years have revealed so many failures of dedication and character by those who understood what and who Trump was but flinched from opposing him all the same. Will they do better in this fight to stand by Ukraine and send a message to the ex-president who aligns with Moscow against NATO?

Trump is campaigning to return to the presidency on four big promises:

  1. to elevate himself above the law and evade accountability for the many crimes of which he has been accused and indicted, including attempting to overthrow an election by violence;
  2. to round up and deport millions of people;
  3. to impose heavy tariffs across the board and return the country to the protectionist policies that deepened the Great Depression; and
  4. to resign from America’s democratic alliances and replace them with an isolationist foreign policy aligned with the world’s dictatorships.

Standing in Trump’s way is a strange coalition of progressive Democrats and old-time conservative Republicans—the sort who remember what their party used to stand for. Those traditional Republicans have yielded to Trump again and again in the past. Maybe, in the end, they’ll surrender this time too. Yet on Ukraine aid—more than on any other issue—those old-time, patriotic Republicans have shown unexpected determination against Trump and his backers and enablers.

This is a harrowing and thrilling moment, one that will test them—and all of us.

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