CPAC opens and immediately devolves into GOP dissent over Ukraine

Conservatives gather for their annual meeting in Orlando — and already Republicans are fracturing over Russia

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published February 24, 2022 6:30PM (EST)

An Ukrainian military tank is seen near Potemkin Stairs in the centre of Odessa after Russia's military operation in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
An Ukrainian military tank is seen near Potemkin Stairs in the centre of Odessa after Russia's military operation in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Ahead of Donald Trump's address at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) members of the audience were memorably, if accidentally, given tiny red, white and blue flags to wave. The problem? Except for the word "Trump" printed across the middle of each tiny banner, they were waving an exact replica of the Russian flag. Today, that embarrassing slip-up seems relevant again as CPAC 2022 speakers navigate how to address the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, with Russian combat forces invading the same day that America's preeminent conservative conference began.

On Thursday morning, American Conservative Union president Matt Schlapp told The Independent that Russia's invasion of Ukraine — likely to be one of the worst conflicts in recent European history — won't alter the program CPAC has planned in Orlando for the next four days. With more than a dozen former Trump staffers on hand as speakers, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former National Intelligence director Richard Grinnell and former Trump national security advisor Robert O'Brien, Schlapp reasoned, the issue would be organically covered through their expertise. Still, Schlapp did indulge in a jab at U.S. President Joe Biden, saying, "What happens when you're not projecting strength? What happens when you're projecting confusion, a weakness? Well, you probably get a lot more conflicts like Ukraine."

Within its first few hours of opening, a number of CPAC speakers echoed Schlapp's sentiments. 

RELATED: Trump, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo praise Putin while bashing Biden

Talk show host Ben Ferguson implicitly blamed Russia's attack on Ukraine on Biden, opening his talk with a joking reference to a 2020 Biden campaign tweet, in which the then-candidate said he was the only Democrat in the field who'd "gone toe to toe" with Putin. Instead, Ferguson argued, under Biden's leadership, "America is incompetent right now," and that's why Putin had felt emboldened to attack.

GOP consultant Alex Bruesewitz similarly said what was happening in Russia was thanks to Biden.

"Unconstitutional elections have consequences, and we can never all this" — by which Bruesewitz didn't mean Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but rather Trump's defeat — "to happen again."

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"Trump was right about everything. One thing he was right about was that Biden's weakness would invite Putin's aggression," agreed former Trump advisor and Ohio congressional candidate Max Miller. "None of this had to happen, and with President Trump, none of it would have."

K.T. McFarland, Trump's former deputy national security advisor under Michael Flynn, both of whom left the Trump administration disgraced, described the consequences of Russia's invasion in stark terms: as the most significant threat that the U.S. has faced since the end of World War II.

The attack, "has changed the complex, generational struggle that we have been in with the forces of darkness against forces of light," McFarland said. "We have national leadership that I think at a certain point is probably criminally incompetent," she said, placing blame on Biden. "They are unable to stop what Vladimir Putin could do and now they don't know what to do."

McFarland then went on to urge CPAC attendees to consider Russia's incursion a serious matter.

"It's important to understand that in this generational struggle, it's not just about Europe. Vladimir Putin doesn't just stop with Ukraine. He has put himself in a position, thanks to a feckless American administration, where he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants with Ukraine. …My concern is it doesn't just stop with Ukraine. It goes on. Will he next threaten NATO? His lifelong objective has been to dismantle NATO, to separate the United States from Europe and then to recreate the Soviet Union."

But not all attendees agreed with such a call to action.

RELATED: Putin leaves Republicans splintered and confused

In a panel on the power of conservative memes, Rogan O'Handley, a conservative Instagram influencer better known as "DC Draino," struck the opposite note, saying, "With all this Ukraine stuff going on, I'm sure there's going to be a lot of establishment, military-industrial complex GOP people up on stage saying it's in our national interest to fight that war. It is not. It is not. Burisma! Hunter Biden was taking money. They impeached President Trump over a phone call to Ukraine. Biden has instigated this …there is massive deep state corruption in that regime. We should not send our American sons and daughters to cover up the Biden crime family's corruption."

A similar note was sounded by Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA.

"I want to be part of an extinction event for the political woke left to put them into complete and total irrelevancy for the next 20 or 30 years," he said. But to get there though, he continued, conservatives have to be clear about priorities. 

In recent years, both Kirk and TPUSA have been attacked from the right by the likes of the America First "groyper" movement, which pushes for far more hardline, openly white nationalist positions on a range of issues. Now, as though channeling his critics, Kirk said he didn't want to see U.S. armed forces deployed to defend Ukraine's border when the Biden administration was ignoring the supposed breach of the U.S. Southern border by migrants.

"For example, the U.S. Southern border matters a lot more than the Ukrainian border. In fact, I want every Republican leader who comes onto this stage the next couple days to say that what's happening on the Southern border is an invasion because 2 million people waltzed into our country in the last year. I'm more concerned about how the cartels are trying to infiltrate our country than a dispute 5,000 miles away in cities we can't even pronounce, places most Americans can't find on a map. Now I'm not defending dictators halfway around the world, but when your own country is falling apart, I don't want to hear lectures about why we have to send our troops halfway around the world when we are being invaded!"

RELATED: Republicans splinter over Russia

On Saturday night, CPAC will also host former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who recently argued that NATO, rather than Russia, is to blame for the conflict.

Meanwhile, if CPAC's collective response to the invasion has so far been a shrug, a competing right-wing conference being held tomorrow, America First PAC or AFPAC, also in Orlando this weekend, is in open celebration mode.

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As Political Research Associate researcher Ben Lorber noted on Twitter, America First founder, the white nationalist Nick Fuentes, cheered on social media, "I am totally rooting for Russia," and "this is the coolest thing to happen since 1/6." Andrew Torba, CEO of the right-wing social media company Gab, which is sponsoring AFPAC, praised Putin as "brilliant," writing, "I hope the Globalist American Empire gets humiliated from all angles," and "Ukraine needs to be liberated and cleansed from the degeneracy of the secular western globalist empire." Another AFPAC speaker, Arizona state Senator Wendy Rogers cheered, "More tanks less trannies" — a close echo of right-wing narratives from the likes of Steve Bannon, that Putin, commendably, "ain't woke," and thus deserves U.S. conservatives' support. (That sort of talk is also happening among conservatives closer to the center than Bannon, as with The American Conservative's Rod Dreher, who wrote this week, "I adamantly oppose risking the lives of boys from Louisiana and Alabama to make the Donbass safe for genderqueers and migrants.")

While AFPAC sets itself up in explicit contrast to what it considers the milquetoast conservatives at CPAC, it's not unthinkable that, as with Kirk's jump to the right, other CPAC speakers won't soon follow suit.

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Afpac America First Brief Charlie Kirk Conservatives Cpac Gop Civil War Matt Schlapp Republicans Russia Ukraine