Senate Republicans on Wednesday signaled growing concerns about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) stance on Ukraine after he likened Russia’s invasion of the country to a “territorial dispute” and argued becoming further involved is not a “vital” national interest for the U.S.
Multiple Republicans took aim at the remarks, which came in a lengthy statement to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, and indicated they believe DeSantis is basing his stance on politics, not national security interests.
“It does seem consistent with many of the things we’re hearing on television and certain friends in the Republican Party,” Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) told The Hill. “But I don’t think that this is a long-game political strategy, and it’s certainly not a long-game national security strategy.”
“I really am concerned that he’s — and other members of our party — aren’t prepared to show resolve in this region because it will have broader implications in the Asian Pacific and the Middle East and beyond. This is the one thing that Vladimir Putin seems to be hoping for right now, which is just to outlast the U.S.,” Young continued. “It seems plain that if we’re not assisting Ukraine and their efforts right now, we’re going to have NATO treaty allies with the Russian army standing on their border. The security implications of that are grave and could require an even greater expenditure of resources moving forward.”
Sen. Todd Young (Greg Nash)
DeSantis was one of 11 current and potential GOP presidential candidates to whom Carlson sent questionnaires on the subject, but he has easily received the most blowback from top Republicans.
A number of Senate Republicans on Wednesday said that despite the stances of DeSantis and former President Trump — the two top contenders for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination — a vast majority of their conference back continued support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
“There are lots of different opinions on the U.S. involvement in Ukraine,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters. “But I think the majority opinion among Senate Republicans is that the United States has a vital national security interest there in stopping Russian aggression, and that’s certainly the view I have.”
Thune stepped in at the podium on Wednesday to answer questions in place of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who remains sidelined after falling last week and suffering a concussion and a broken rib. McConnell has been among the most steadfast voices in support of Ukraine and the U.S. providing continued financial backing for its efforts to turn back Russian forces, a stance that has been echoed by the rest of Senate GOP leadership.
“I don’t agree with [DeSantis],” the No. 5 Senate Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) told The Hill. “I think this is much bigger than a territorial dispute.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he “completely” disagreed with DeSantis’s statement, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN that “to say this doesn’t matter is to say war crimes don’t matter.”
Other Senate Republicans, however, were more willing to give the Florida governor a pass on the matter.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who criticized DeSantis in the immediate aftermath of his remarks, told The Hill on Wednesday that the statement in full is more nuanced than he anticipated.
“I don’t think that it is [alarming] if you read some of his full statements. I think he was trying to recognize some of the legitimate concerns that maybe some folks in our base have,” Tillis said. “When I saw the topline report, I was concerned. … But on second reflection, I don’t think it’s ‘get out, leave.’ It’s more nuanced.”
Tillis also echoed the sentiment Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) shared a day earlier — that DeSantis is not privy to “classified information and the broader context and the arguments for being there.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (Greg Nash)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also struck a more conciliatory tone, telling The Hill that while DeSantis’s point of view is “a little bit different” than his, “we’re a big party, and there’s a lot of difference of opinions in it and you just have to respect those opinions.”
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who is supporting Trump in 2024, added that DeSantis’s comments are smart because that is where many GOP voters stand on the matter.
According to a Pew Research poll released in January, 40 percent of Republican respondents said the U.S. was giving too much aid to Ukraine — a figure that is up from just 9 percent last March.
“I think the party is going more in that direction, and I think they look at polls,” Tuberville said. “I think most of these political people will look at polls and go by what polls are saying. … That’s what politics is about. It’s not really about national security. It’s about getting elected.”
DeSantis has yet to announce his presidential bid, but he is expected to do so after the Florida legislative session in Tallahassee concludes in May.