Hungarian Prime Minister Minister Viktor Orbán (L) and former President Donald...

Hungarian Prime Minister Minister Viktor Orbán (L) and former President Donald Trump during a their meeting at Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida on March 8. Credit: HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE/Zoltan Fischer

WASHINGTON — A day after President Joe Biden urged Congress to “stand with Ukraine" in his State of the Union speech, former President Donald Trump delivered precisely the opposite message to nationalist Viktor Orban, the nationalist prime minister of Hungary.

“Trump says when he comes back, he won’t give a penny to Ukraine,” Orban said in recounting his meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. “That’s when the war [against Russia] will be over.”

Biden’s appeal to Republican lawmakers who have been at an impasse over aid to Ukraine, and Trump’s displays of support for autocratic leaders such as Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin, underscore the widening ideological and generational rift within the Republican Party over the United States’ role overseas, foreign policy and political analysts told Newsday.

During the Cold War and the presidency of the late Ronald Reagan, Republicans generally took a tough stance toward Russia and the former Soviet Union.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • President Joe Biden wants Congress to "stand with Ukraine" and approve billions of dollars in U.S. funding for the Eastern European nation's war with Russia.
  • But Republicans are split between mainstream members who view Russia as a national security threat and right-flank members who believe the U.S. has no role in the Ukraine-Russia fight.
  • It's a major shift for a party that during the Cold War and Ronald Reagan's presidency took a reliably tough stance against Russia and the former Soviet Union.

GOP sharply divided

But the party is sharply divided between mainstream Republicans who view Russia as a serious national security threat and right-flank Republicans who feel the U.S. should not play a role in deterring Putin’s expansionist goals in Ukraine.

Trump has long praised authoritarian leaders. He called Putin a “genius” just before Russia's invasion of Ukraine two years ago and described Orban as a “fantastic leader,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “talented” and Chinese President Xi Jingpin as “brilliant.”

Conservative media host Tucker Carlson once called Putin a “dictator.” But he drew criticism of his interview with Putin last month in which he did little to push back against Putin assertions about the war in Ukraine -- including that Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv as part of a peace deal, when in fact Ukrainian resistance forced Russia to retreat. Afterward, Putin told a Russian TV interviewer he had expected Carlson to “behave aggressively and ask so-called sharp questions.”

“This is the new Republican Party,” Hofstra University political science professor Richard Himelfarb told Newsday. “People who were isolationists historically have been 20 to 25% of the party … They certainly go back to the time of Pat Buchanan in the 1990s. They have now become the loudest and most vocal group in the Republican Party.”

GOP isolationists have become more vocal since the Iraq War, “and the disaster that it became,” Himelfarb said.

“They saw it as foreign adventurism, nation building that was never going to work,” Himelfarb said. “Trump is very appealing to them because Trump comes along in 2016, and he basically says ‘You know what, you're right.’”

John E. Herbst, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003-2006 under former Republican President George W. Bush, told Newsday the change of sentiment among some GOP members on Ukraine has been driven “by the populist wing” of the party.

“I would simply say they have no understanding of how dangerous Russian foreign policy is to the United States,” said Herbst, a senior director at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The assistance to Ukraine is not philanthropy to Ukraine," Herbst said. "It is a smart way to protect American interests from an aggressive Russia that has identified us as its principal adversary.”

Ukraine funding stalled

New funding for Ukraine has been stalled in Congress for the past six months. Last month, the U.S. Senate passed a $95 billion national defense bill that included $60 billion for Ukraine, but despite the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), 26 Republicans voted against the measure, compared with 22 who voted for it.

The bill has yet to be scheduled for a vote in the U.S. House, where Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), a Trump loyalist, has said the chamber is in “no rush” to vote on funding for Ukraine. Johnson has faced pressure from the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, a group of more than 40 Republicans who have called for an end to U.S. funding for Ukraine.

Johnson, in an interview last Thursday with Politico, said he would attempt to pass a stand-alone funding bill with aid for Ukraine and Israel via a procedural vote that would require Democratic support to pass. Republicans control the House with a 219 to 213 majority.

Biden, in his State of the Union speech on March 7, invoked Reagan, who in 1987 famously urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall” dividing democratic West Germany and then-communist East Germany.

That message may not resonate with a newer generation of Republicans loyal to Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement, said Republican political strategist Michael Dawidziak, based in Bohemia.

“The patron saint of the Republican Party for many, many years was Ronald Reagan, but the MAGA-wing of the party seems to be moving away from that,” Dawidziak said. “So much of what they say and do politically is through the prism of one person — Donald Trump.”

Dan Caldwell, public policy advisor for Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think-tank that advocates for “restraint” in foreign policy, told Newsday a growing number of Republicans view the war in Ukraine as “primarily a European security challenge.”

He continued: “There's been a shift occurring within the Republican Party on foreign policy, and it's been driven not in a top down manner by one particular political figure or another, but in a bottom up manner. Republican voters have become more skeptical of foreign intervention, and their elected officials are now only really catching up to where Republican voters have been for several years now.”

Republicans skeptical of Ukraine aid

Recent national polls show Republicans are increasingly becoming skeptical of U.S. aid to Ukraine. A Pew Research Poll released in late December found nearly half of Republicans surveyed — 48% — said the U.S. is giving too much aid to Ukraine, up from 44% a few months earlier in June. Only 16% of Democrats polled said U.S aid to Ukraine was excessive, up from 14%.

The ideological and generational split on Ukraine was on display during a marathon Senate debate session last month  about Ukraine aid.

“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Missouri) posted on the social media site X after the vote.

Schmitt, 48, elected in 2022, added: “Fifteen out of 17 elected since 2018 voted NO. Things are changing just not fast enough.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), 69, invoked Reagan and generations of U.S. veterans who fought overseas as he called on lawmakers to support the funding for Ukraine.

“We owe them to live up to our responsibilities to preserve what they have defended and protected,” said Moran, who first was elected in 2011. “I believe in America First, but unfortunately America First means we have to engage in the world.”

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