Kevin McCarthy blames Biden for Ukraine invasion — despite defending Trump’s blackmail scheme

McCarthy once said withholding military aid from Ukraine was the "rightful thing to do" — but now he's flipped

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published April 18, 2022 9:38AM (EDT)

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., criticized President Biden for not arming Ukraine sooner despite repeatedly defending former President Donald Trump's efforts to freeze military aid to the country in exchange for help with his re-election campaign.

McCarthy argued in an interview with Fox News that Russian President Vladimir Putin "probably" would not have invaded Ukraine if the Biden administration had acted sooner.

"This is going to get stronger and rougher, and what really needs to happen is Ukraine is not asking for American men and women to fight. All they're asking for is the weapons to defend themselves," he said. "If we would have taken those actions earlier instead of waiting until after Russia invaded, they probably never would have invaded, had we done that sooner."

Fox News correspondent Mike Emanuel noted that the Biden administration last week announced $800 million in additional military aid to Ukraine and has provided more than $2.5 billion in weapons and equipment to the country since February.

"Ukraine was craving the ability to defend themselves. Had we moved the weapons to Ukraine earlier, that they could defend themselves, it would have saved thousands of lives and probably the decision of Putin not to enter," McCarthy said.

What makes this attempt to blame Biden especially noteworthy is the fact that McCarthy vigorously defended Trump during the latter's first impeachment proceedings, which were sparked by Trump's attempt to withhold military aid to Ukraine until President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to launch an investigation of the Biden family's business dealings in that country. 

RELATED: Biden must prepare: Republicans plan to exploit Ukraine for political gain — again

In 2019, Trump delayed hundreds of millions in military aid to Ukraine while pressuring Zelenskyy to open a baseless investigation into Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma. Joe Biden, Hunter's father, was of course perceived as Trump's likely opponent in the 2020 election.

McCarthy fiercely opposed Trump's impeachment and defended his decision to withhold aid as the correct move.

"These are taxpayer dollars going to another country that people believed there was corruption with a new administration," he said in 2020. "I think it was the rightful thing to do."

Many other prominent Republicans who defended Trump's actions in Ukraine have also been critical of Biden's response to the war. Numerous Russia experts have argued, however, that Trump's pressure on Ukraine and his repeated appeasement of Putin may have emboldened the Kremlin.

That pattern sent "a message to Putin that Ukraine is a plaything for him … and for the United States. And that nobody's really serious about protecting Ukraine," Fiona Hill, a Russia expert and former member of the National Security Council who testified during Trump's first impeachment, said last month. "And that was ultimately a sign of weakness."

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Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and fellow impeachment witness, came to a similar conclusion.

Trump "came to see Ukraine as a weaker country, not as deserving of much attention," she told Vanity Fair. "And when he did put his attention on it, he saw Ukraine as a pawn that could be bullied into doing his bidding. I think that made a huge impact on Zelenskyy and I think that Putin and other bad actors around the world saw that our president was acting in his own personal interests. He was using his office for his personal interest rather than to work in the interest of the American people, in our national security interest, because it wasn't in our interest. It was our policy to help Ukrainians defend themselves. I think the other thing that Putin saw in Donald Trump's administration was Trump's negativity toward NATO and his actions toward other NATO countries."

That anti-NATO sentiment appears to have remained intact among some Trump loyalists in the Republican Party. Earlier this month, 63 House Republicans, more than 30% of the entire GOP caucus, voted against a symbolic resolution reaffirming support for NATO amid Russia's invasion.

McCarthy on Sunday dodged questions about the members of his party who had opposed that resolution.

"There's strong support for NATO moving forward. Always has been," McCarthy claimed. "NATO is in the process of defending themselves but the one thing we need to make sure is NATO countries spend the money [on defense]. This affects everybody and that's why we should stand up for Ukraine and provide them the weapons to defend themselves where Putin cannot continue to do these atrocities."

Trump, of course, had a highly antagonistic relationship with NATO while in office, and in 2018 privately discussed withdrawing from the alliance entirely, according to the New York Times. After he won the Republican nomination in 2016, Trump's campaign stripped language supporting "lethal defensive weapons" for Ukraine from the official Republican Party platform.

Though Trump and Republican lawmakers have argued that Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if he was still in office, former Trump administration foreign policy officials have a different view.

"I'm not sure he would have done much of anything, frankly," if Putin had invaded Ukraine during his tenure, former national security adviser John Bolton told Vice News last month. "But you never know with Trump. It depends on what time of day it is, it depends on what he thought his political benefit would be at any given moment. I don't think ultimately he would have stood in Putin's way."

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By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Donald Trump Joe Biden Kevin Mccarthy Politics Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelenskyy