I don't think anyone who happened to turn on the TV or went online over the weekend missed the horrifying events that are unfolding in Ukraine. The Ukrainians are putting up a valiant fight so far and seem to have thwarted the enemy's plan for a quick takeover of their capital and decapitation of the democratically elected government. But it's early days yet, so it's important not to get overly optimistic. It's going to be a very rough time for the Ukrainian people.
It also appears that it's going to be a very rough time for Russia as President Vladimir Putin has accomplished one thing he probably did not anticipate: the unification of most of the world against him.
Both the European Union and United States, as well several other key countries in Europe and around the world, have acted very quickly to enact sharp sanctions on Putin and his wealthy oligarch compatriots. Russia's already been cut off from the international banking system and the Ukrainians have already seen a massive resupply of military equipment. NATO has never been more united. Countries like Finland ,which have always rejected NATO membership, are suddenly discussing the possibility of joining up.
This is not what Putin wanted. He thought he was dealing with a fractured alliance and a United States so bitterly divided that it could not act with any credibility. It turns out he was wrong.
It's a bit hard to focus on domestic politics while all this is going on but since the U.S. is involved, whether we like it or not, and our political situation is hugely relevant, it's important not to lose sight of what's happening here at home. This weekend the Conservative Political Action Conference was meeting in Orlando Florida and the keynote speaker was their once and future Dear Leader Donald Trump. He spoke on Saturday night to an ecstatic crowd that was eager to hear him do his greatest hits.
I think everyone in politics was interested to hear what he had to say about the Ukraine situation. Last week his comments about the invasion were abhorrent. After saying silent for the entire time the U.S. was warning Ukraine that the invasion was imminent he finally stepped up and said this:
"I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, 'This is genius.' Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful. He used the word 'independent' and 'we're gonna go out and we're gonna go in and we're gonna help keep peace.' You gotta say that's pretty savvy."
He followed that up with this comment the next day at a political event at Mar-a-lago:
'Oh, Trump said Putin's smart.' I mean, he's taken over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I'd say that's pretty smart. He's taking over a country, really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people and just walking right in."
That's the kind of talk you expect from drunk guys at the end of the bar, not a former American president. But this is Donald Trump so what else could we expect?
In the days that followed those comments, there was a sea change within the GOP coalition when it became obvious that much of their pro-Putin commentary was falling flat with the public. Putin cheerleaders like Tucker Carlson abruptly pivoted from attacking those who criticized Putin to attacking President Joe Biden for being weak and failing to stand up to him. And in fairness, Trump had been saying the same thing, of course, suggesting from the beginning that the genius and savvy Putin would never have attempted the invasion if he were still president.
His appearance at CPAC Saturday night would finally clarify if Trump would continue to extol the great genius of Putin — as he has been doing for years now — in the face of a brutal, unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country or whether he would finally find it in himself to condemn the actions of his favorite dictator. He did not do the latter.
It was the usual prepared speech (which sounded like a Stephen Miller special) mixed with ad libs about how America is an apocalyptic hellhole interspersed with shout outs to his cronies and fangirls. It took Trump nearly 15 minutes to even mention Ukraine and when he did it was an aside about "the perfect phone call." His first mention of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was how he had allegedly told the world that Trump had done nothing wrong. (Zelensky did not do that.) It took several more minutes before he finally got to the part in his script where he condemned the invasion, calling it an outrage and an atrocity before he resumed bragging about what a great president he'd been.
In his first mention of Putin he said he'd made the decision to attack Ukraine after he witnessed the Afghanistan withdrawal and once again said he was smart and NATO and the U.S. are dumb.
If you take over Ukraine, we are going to sanction you, they say. Sanction? That is a weak statement. Putin says they've sanctioned me for the last 25 years. I can take over a whole country and they're going to sanction me? They're not going to blow us to pieces ... at least psychologically?
Blow them to pieces psychologically? What in the world?
Then he slammed Democrats for defending Ukraine sovereignty when they supposedly care nothing about protecting their own borders which garnered huge cheers from the crowd. Apparently, Trump and his followers are unable to see any difference between people who are coming over the border to work in restaurants and harvest crops and an army mowing down innocent people with rockets and tanks.
And then that was it on Putin.
So Putin's just a smart guy doing the smart thing according to our former president. But there is a serious threat to democracy and world peace that's much worse:
It's tempting to make jokes about this but I really can't. Trump pretty much announced he is running again at this event. (He said that he's already won twice and he's going to do it a third time.) And according to at least one recent poll, nearly half of Americans disapprove of Biden's handling of the situation in Ukraine. Only 66% of Democrats even approve. I'm not sure what they think he should have done differently, perhaps kowtow to dictators as Trump did?
This is all very concerning. Biden and his team have actually done a good job of wrangling a fractious alliance and putting together some very tough economic sanctions. Their decision to telegraph the intelligence that the invasion was coming took guts as well — because if Russia had pulled back they would have been accused of either lying or being hysterical. As it was, Biden and his team prepared the world for what was coming and laid the groundwork for a unified response. The fact that the president doesn't even have the full support of his own partisans despite that is a very bad omen.
The man who practically declared war on Canada and literally cannot say a bad word about a dictator who has just invaded his own neighbor is still almost certain to be the next Republican nominee for president.