In March of 2012, Mitt Romney told Wolf Blitzer that Russia was the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.” Romney’s analysis was widely ridiculed by Democrats and liberal talking heads at the time. In the October 22 debate, Obama famously zinged Romney, saying, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Obama had every political reason to delegitimize Romney’s analysis, because Romney was insinuating the President was doing back-door deals with a potentially dangerous political enemy. Obama’s verbal dagger, surgically excluding the nuance of Romney’s entire statement, made for a great soundbyte. And despite Romney’s retort that his eyes were clear on the issue and that he would not “wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin,” Obama’s characterization of Romney as out-of-touch was effective.
This is not a criticism of Obama’s debate style or an apology piece for Romney. It is, however, an interesting starting point for evolving attitudes regarding Russia along party lines.
Republicans and conservative pundits felt vindicated as Romney’s statement appeared prophetic during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. And whether it be Ukraine, Syria, or the housing of Edward Snowden, Russia has deliberately positioned itself as an impediment to the United States throughout the last several years. Never before has Romney’s analysis felt so prescient. In the intervening years news organizations of all political leanings reported that Romney may have been right regarding the modern threat posed by Putin and Russia. And although the story was printed in one form or another by a host of news organizations, right-leaning outlets understandably did so with more gusto and indignation.
In early March of 2014, TheBlazeTV’s Glenn Beck alongside Steve “Stu” Burguiere, and Pat Gray played an audio montage of the ridicule Romney endured after making the statement two years prior painfully contextualized over the recent Crimea annexation.
In July of 2015, Fox News did an interview with Peter Johnson Jr. after Obama’s appointee for Commandant of the Marine Corp stated that Russia posed an existential threat to the United States. The discussion reached the same conclusion: Russia is a threat and Mitt Romney was right.
In April 2016, Utah’s conservative newspaper, The Deseret News, printed an editorial headlined “Mitt Romney was right about Russia as a top U.S. foe” after Russian warplanes and a military helicopter flew very close to a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea.
In short, conservatives were saying, “We told you so.” And they had a point.
As recently as October 2016, Fox News posted an editorial on its web site outlining the “breathtaking problem” Russia would pose to the incoming President. Its author, Ariel Cohen, wrote: “Clinton and Trump both need to understand that what we are seeing in Russia now is not just anti-Americanism, but an attempt to turn back 300 years of Westernization, which started under Peter the Great, and continued even under communism.”
Distrust directed toward Russia wasn’t confined just to conservative journalists. After President Obama announced a series of sanctions against Russia in response to the Putin’s interference in the 2016 election, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Russia had “consistently sought to undermine” U.S. interests. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed Ryan’s sentiment, adding that “The Russians are not our friends.” Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) offered this pointed criticism of Putin: “Vladimir Putin is KGB. He always has been, he always will be.”
And these examples are just a drop in the bucket of conservative voices, among others on the left, expressing concerns over an adversarial Russia over the course of several years. So where are they now? Conservative concern has waned as the fate of the current president becomes increasingly tied to Russia and Putin. And aside from a small handful of Republican senators, such as John McCain (R-Arizona), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), conservative fervor has mostly, and relatively abruptly, dried up on the issue. And even those senators have not always aligned their statements with their votes.
That said, a politically hostile and actively anti-American Russia is not only a more readily apparent reality, it has been a conservative talking point for years, and a valid one. So when the current President and his staff are plagued with evidence of relentless, multiplying, and compromising ties to Russia, the pervading silence and apparent lack of concern on the right side of the aisle is baffling.
At the same time, Vladimir Putin’s favorability rating among Republicans has skyrocketed according to an Economist/YouGov poll. Just 10 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Vladimir Putin in July 2010. That number stayed more or less the same until it suddenly spiked in mid-2016 after then-candidate Trump praised Putin. By August of 2016, 37 percent of Republicans had a very or somewhat favorable opinion of Putin. Republicans with a “very unfavorable” view of Putin dipped from 51 percent in 2014 to just 14 percent in 2016.
But as his reputation among Republicans improved, Putin’s behavior on the world stage did not. In fact, it has arguably become a great deal more worrisome. During the recent confirmation hearing for Trump’s appointee for Secretary of State, Senator Rubio described Putin as a war criminal after Rex Tillerson declined to describe him as such. Rubio elaborated, “In Aleppo, Mr. Putin has directed his military to conduct a devastating campaign… His military has targeted schools and markets and other civilian infrastructure that resulted in the death of thousands of civilians… It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo.”
This is the man inexplicably garnering such a striking improvement of support among American Republicans, even as one of their own declares him a war criminal. A man suspected to be involved in the murders of approximately 34 Russian journalists since 2000. A man that the CIA, FBI, and NSA all determined interfered in the 2016 election in a calculated effort to weaken faith in the American democratic process and to see Trump elected. And there lies the problem.
If it was not already clear that [Trump] would prefer the Russia investigation died, it certainly is clear now."
To see such a drastic reversal of opinion among conservatives would make sense if Putin had become more amicable to Western interests or more cooperative with American goals and methods. What has actually occurred is quite the opposite. In the absence of any other rational motive and in light of the timing of the abrupt boost, the only explanation for Putin’s improved standing among Republicans is his mystifying relationship with Trump. For all his sins, Putin is entwined with the current Republican president and many conservatives have made room at the table with Romney’s warning no more than a conveniently discarded memory. What a difference four years can make.
Make no mistake, partisanship is the driving force behind this strange change of heart. Meanwhile, Trump continues to launch into a trademark sideshow of unsubstantiated and diversionary accusations and jabs. If it was not already clear that he would prefer the Russia investigation to die, it certainly is clear now
Investigating concerning and corroborated ties with a foreign power intent on weakening American democracy should not be a partisan issue. When the national security adviser resigns after lying about meeting with the Russian ambassador it should cause us all concern. When the sitting Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, makes false statements regarding meeting with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 campaign, that should cause us all concern. It should at least raise an eyebrow when it becomes clear that Sessions, a self-designated Trump campaign surrogate, was the only member of the National Security Advisory Council to receive an invitation from the Russian ambassador. When an intelligence dossier surfaces from a reputable former MI6 agent suggesting that Trump is susceptible to Russian blackmail it should give us all pause, particularly now that some of the information has been independently verified by U.S. intelligence. When it comes to light that Trump’s campaign manager was paid millions of dollars between 2006 and 2009 to “greatly benefit the Putin Government,” it should raise an eyebrow. And the list goes on and on and on.
In light of this compromising information, it should be all the more concerning considering Trump’s bizarre, accommodating, and complimentary stance toward Putin even as he bombastically thumbs his nose at other world leaders, friend or foe. It should be all the more concerning considering Trump once asked Russia to engage in an act of espionage on an American political party. It should be all the more concerning considering Trump vigorously, repeatedly, and without any rebutting evidence sought to cast doubt on the findings of all three major U.S. intelligence agencies regarding Russia’s operation to sway the U.S. election. It should be all the more concerning that the Trump campaign worked to weaken the response language regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the Republican party platform. It should be all the more concerning considering Trump is the first major-party presidential candidate in over 40 years not to release his tax returns.
In 2012, the Republican nominee for president said his eyes were clear on Russia and Putin. Unfortunately, the same appears to be increasingly less true about the party that once rallied around his statement. Bowing to partisan pressure won’t make concerns regarding Trump’s ties to Russia go away. Instead, these valid concerns should be shared and thoroughly investigated across party lines.