Trump pushed GOP hawks to the sidelines. Will the invasion of Ukraine bring them back?

While running for president in 2016, Donald Trump promised he would be a different kind of Republican, particularly when it came to foreign policy.

Running on an “America First” platform, he promised to tear up trade deals championed by both parties, misleadingly bragged that he had always been against the Iraq War and promised to have a “very, very good relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He also questioned the relevance of the NATO alliance. “We’re taking care of, as an example, the Ukraine. I mean, the countries over there don’t seem to be so interested,” Trump said when discussing NATO in March 2016.

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump at a recent rally in Florence, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

His remarks represented a sea change in Republican thinking about the world, which in Trump’s view had long been dominated by hawkish neoconservatives.

The last Republican president, George W. Bush, had embraced an aggressive foreign policy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and launched what his administration called the global war on terror. His father, President George H.W. Bush, had been a staunch internationalist. Before that, President Ronald Reagan pursued a confrontational approach with the Soviet Union in the last decade of the Cold War.

And although he would bring foreign policy hawks like John Bolton into his Cabinet, Trump retained his skepticism of foreign entanglements, dissing allies while cozying up to Putin and other anti-U.S. autocrats like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The GOP’s foreign policy establishment was in large part pushed aside.

Now the GOP hawks are back. Emboldened by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, they’re flexing their muscles in Washington and on the campaign trail after nearly six years of being sidelined by Trump and his circle.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, is back in the spotlight and accusing Tulsi Gabbard, an antiwar former Democratic congresswoman who has moved rightward in recent years, of “treasonous lies.”

And at a private fundraiser with major GOP donors on Monday, Romney reportedly received a standing ovation when he praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The fundraiser was in support of Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, a Trump critic and the daughter of George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney.

Sen. Mitt Romney, right
Sen. Mitt Romney at the Capitol earlier this month. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Romney, who twice voted for Trump’s impeachment, is sometimes seen as an outlier in current Republican politics. But he’s not the only GOP lawmaker who is striking a hawkish note.

After years of trying to conform to Trump’s populist approach, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is leading Senate hearings and sounding more like the Reagan-style anticommunist who ran for president in 2016. And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump critic turned apologist, sounds more like the hawk who was best buddies with the late Sen. John McCain for years.

Even former Vice President Mike Pence is launching broadsides at “apologists for Putin” within the GOP — a clear shot at Trump and his allies on cable news programs. Pence’s statement was echoed days later by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a staunch Trump ally.

“I don’t think there’s anything ‘savvy’ or ‘genius’ about Putin,” McCarthy, who stands to become the next speaker of the House should Republicans retake the chamber in November, told reporters last week. “I think Putin is evil. He’s a dictator. And I think he’s murdering people right now.”

McCarthy’s words were not chosen by accident. In a February interview, Trump had called Putin’s moves against Ukraine both “genius” and “savvy.”

Residents of Irpin, Ukraine, flee heavy fighting
Residents of Irpin, Ukraine, flee heavy fighting after Russian forces entered the city on March 7. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

“The Trumpian worldview that embraced Vladimir Putin and threatened to abandon NATO has, for now, been repudiated. Republicans with their ears closest to the ground already know this,” wrote longtime conservative columnist Matt Lewis in the Daily Beast on Tuesday.

Conservative pundit and former GOP speechwriter John Podhoretz is also touting the GOP’s hawkish new tilt. In an essay this week for Commentary, Podhoretz declared that that the U.S. is experiencing “a neoconservative moment.”

The public mood does appear to have shifted. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released this week found that the vast majority of Americans say Biden’s response to the Russian invasion has either been “about right” (31%) or “not tough enough” (34%). Just 6% called it “too tough.”

No less than Karl Rove, who has dabbled as a Trump adviser over the last five years but is best known as the “brain” behind George W. Bush, ticked through a Reuters/Ipsos poll last week showing Republican voters largely in line with the rest of the country in supporting Ukraine and opposing Putin.

“These numbers suggest that Republican members of Congress, candidates and commentators echoing Mr. Trump’s isolationism and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters,” Rove wrote.

Karl Rove
Karl Rove, former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff during the George W. Bush administration, in 2019. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Even Trump appears to be changing his tune a bit. After initially praising Putin’s actions in the lead-up to the invasion, Trump now admits he was “surprised” by the Russian attack and says Putin has “changed.”

But the GOP’s return to its hawkish roots is causing some confusion among Republican strategists, who are still figuring out the message their candidates should deliver.

“It’s caused some interesting friction within the party and the younger, more MAGA-centric base that doesn’t automatically see Ukraine as a natural ally,” said one veteran Republican operative.

“They want to whack Biden, but the argument is more in terms of energy at home and [the Russian energy pipeline] Nord Stream 2 than he’s not doing enough in Ukraine.”

The addition of more blue-collar workers during Trump’s time in the White House fundamentally altered the party’s base, the operative said. These new Republicans are much more open to the kind of antiwar messaging once utilized by Democrats as the Iraq War descended into a long and bloody quagmire.

“You have a lot of people under 45 who grew up in the Iraq-Afghanistan era,” the operative said. “Even if they are Republicans, they don’t want to be saddled with answering for war.”

Patrick Murray, Monmouth University’s polling director, likewise says it’s too soon to tell what sort of long-term impact the Russian invasion will have on Republican politics.

A U.S. Marine from 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade
A U.S. Marine in Afghanistan in 2009. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“It’s a quickly changing situation, and what happens over the ensuing weeks and months, not only in Ukraine but in other related international and domestic areas, will determine this reset,” Murray said.

“Whether Republicans stick with their current position also depends on where political leadership lands on this in the long run. And that will depend on how deeply the U.S. gets involved, along with the direct threat to our national and economic security,” Murray said. “To wit, we don’t know.”

A Monmouth Poll released Wednesday, after Murray had spoken to Yahoo News, indicated that Republicans and Democrats alike support U.S. sanctions on Russia, including the ban on Russian oil. But Republicans and Democrats diverge when asked about Biden’s handling of the crisis: Only 18% of Republicans approve of his performance, compared with 77% of Democrats.

In the open race for Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District, a deeply conservative and rural swath of the state that runs along the Ohio River across from Kentucky, voters are airing concerns about what effect the war will have at home, said Dan Heiwig, a Republican candidate for the seat.

Heiwig said voters in the district are worried about supplies that typically come from Russia, like ammonium nitrate, nickel for stainless steel and more. They’re also worried about rising inflation and the possibility of a recession, said Heiwig, who spent 20 years in the military.

Yet when it comes to Russia, Heiwig said, he finds himself harking back to his Reagan-era childhood.

A convoy of Russian military vehicles in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
A convoy of Russian military vehicles in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on Feb. 23. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“I grew up in the ’80s watching ‘Red Dawn’ fighting Russia,” Heiwig said, referring to the 1984 film in which American teenagers fight against Soviet troops in Colorado. “Who knew the ’20s would be the ’80s without Reagan?”

In the competitive Republican primary race for an open North Carolina Senate seat, former Gov. Pat McCrory accused Trump-endorsed candidate Rep. Ted Budd last week of being too “friendly” toward Russia.

“Budd’s votes have been friendly toward Russia, he voted against sanctions on Russia,” McCrory says in a TV ad. “These are serious times, and we need serious senators.” In an accompanying memo, McCrory adviser Paul Shumaker argued, “Ted Budd’s sympathy for Russia and Putin is a position that Democrats will look to exploit with soft-Republican voters and Independents in the suburbs.” (Budd disputes the characterization, noting that he’s called Putin “evil” and a “thug.”)

Republicans are also using the invasion to hit their Democratic rivals. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who will face off against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in his bid for reelection, blasted the former Texas congressman on Monday for opposing relief and military aid to Ukraine in 2014 after Russia took Crimea.

Democrats, meanwhile, say it’s the GOP that has to answer for Trump’s coddling of Putin.

“Republican lawmakers don’t get to pretend like they didn’t spend four years standing silently by as Donald Trump did everything in his power to embolden Putin, undermine our allies and delay military aid to Ukraine,” said Ammar Moussa, a Democratic National Committee spokesman.