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, like 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 have 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 strains.
He’s still seen as the heavy favorite for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination if he chooses to run again, but other potential candidates like 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 in the wake of the invasion.
Speaking to reporters in between sessions at the House GOP’s annual retreat in Florida late last month, House Republican Conference Chair 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.”
Reinish also said that Trump’s signals to Russia could also give an opening to his would-be 2024 primary challengers. While no Republican has said whether they will oppose Trump for the GOP’s presidential nomination, several prospective candidates have begun signaling interest in a potential White House campaign.
“If I’m [Sen.] Tom Cotton, [Sen.] Ted Cruz, [South Dakota Gov.] Kristi Noem, [former United Nations Ambassador] Nikki Haley or anyone else who wants to run in 2024, I just got a lifeline here, because there’s now a huge point of differentiation,” Reinish said. “They’ll have to thread the needle with the base, but I think less so now.”
Trump’s call for Putin to release dirt on Biden’s family also threatens to resurface one of the most trying chapters from his presidency. Trump was impeached for the first time in 2020 for trying to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate both Biden and his son Hunter.
While Trump’s tactics – overtly appealing to a dictator while he invades a sovereign country – have made many Republicans uncomfortable, some of his allies feel the former president is right to push the issue on Hunter Biden.
One former Trump official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, argued the question of conflicts of interest involving Hunter Biden were too quickly dismissed by the media in 2020. While the source said appealing directly to Putin was a bad look, they suggested Hunter Biden could be a recurring issue once again should Trump take on Biden in a rematch in 2024.
The president’s son was back in the news this week after a Washington Post report detailed his dealings with a Chinese energy conglomerate, adding fuel to claims from Trump and others during the 2020 campaign that the Biden family profited from President Biden’s government work.
The Post did not find evidence that President Biden personally benefited from or knew details about his son’s business dealings, and the White House has repeatedly said the president has had no business dealings overseas.
Instead, the White House has attacked Trump for his outreach to Putin.
“What kind of American, let alone an ex-president, thinks that this is the right time to enter into a scheme with Vladimir Putin and brag about his connections to Vladimir Putin?” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said at a press briefing this week. “There’s only one, and it’s Donald Trump.”
The statement came days after Biden told reporters in Brussels he would be “very fortunate” to face Trump again in the 2024 election when he was asked about the prospect of his foreign policy shifts being undone by the next administration.
To be sure, it’s not clear whether voters are all that concerned with Trump’s rhetoric on Russia. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday found that a plurality of Americans – 30 percent – see rising inflation as the most urgent challenge facing the country. That’s more than twice as many as those who pointed to the war in Ukraine as the top issue.
At the same time, Trump has toggled between praise for Putin and condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which he described as “appalling” during a speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February.
In a statement this week, Trump insisted that he never called Putin a “genius” for his invasion of Ukraine, arguing that he was referring only to the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border ahead of the invasion.
“I assumed [Putin] would be easily able to negotiate a great deal for Russia,” Trump said. “The U.S. and NATO would agree to give Russia what they wanted. Unfortunately, and tragically, Putin went too far, acting on the WEAK Foreign Policy of the Biden Administration.”