Donald Trump’s overtures to Moscow are exposing what Democrats and some Republicans believe could be a major vulnerability for the former president should he mount another White House bid in 2024.
Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February, Trump has been met with repeated criticism, first over his insistence that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been “savvy” in his maneuvering in Ukraine and more recently over his pleas for Moscow to release dirt on President Biden’s family.
The entreaty to Putin echoes a similar plea from the 2016 presidential race, when Trump publicly asked Russia to release his then-opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails. This time, however, even some Republicans admit that Trump could face more serious political ramifications.
“He’s staking out a position on this, intentionally or unintentionally, that no one really wants to take,” one GOP donor said, noting how even some of Trump’s allies, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have sought to distance themselves from his remarks.
After Trump suggested that Putin was a “genius” for declaring two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as autonomous, Graham, who remains close to Trump in his post-presidency, said the former president’s remarks were “a mistake.”
“[Republicans] know it’s something that’s going to be used against him, and they don’t want to be dragged into the mud too,” the donor said.
While Trump’s posture toward Putin and Russia has been the subject of multiple controversies over his political career, his latest remarks come at a time when his influence within the Republican Party is showing new signs of strain.
He’s still seen as the heavy favorite for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination if he chooses to run again, but other potential candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) have begun closing the gap in early polls.
At the same time, most Republican lawmakers have sought to stake out tougher positions on Russia following the invasion.
Speaking to reporters between sessions at the House GOP’s annual retreat in Florida late last month, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) described Putin as a “war criminal” and accused him of “committing genocide.”
Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said that Trump’s posture toward Putin and the Russian government made him even more of an “outlier” among Republicans, most of whom have been strongly supportive of Washington’s efforts to counter Russia and support its NATO allies.
“First of all, this further weakens Donald Trump himself, and it also further gives Republicans more of a lifeline to isolate him, to minimize him and to run away from him,” Reinish said. “He’s making it easier for them to continue this process of moving away from him.”