It has been nearly two years since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his criminal campaign to exterminate Ukraine, the next step in rebuilding the Russian Empire. Now, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has almost stalled, and another long winter is approaching.
Last year, Congress greeted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a hero, with at least 13 standing ovations as he described the horrors and hardships the Ukrainian people were enduring to remain free. This September, then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) denied Zelensky’s request to address another joint session.
The Pentagon is rationing the equipment it sends to Ukraine because the budget Congress approved is nearly gone. House Republicans are ignoring President Biden’s requests for more support. Polls show the American people’s commitment to Ukraine is cooling, too.
Russians are raping, torturing and executing Ukrainians in the streets. Putin is conducting cultural genocide by bombing and looting Ukraine’s priceless religious and cultural treasures, all to remove evidence of the democracy trying to emerge there.
But now, much of the world’s attention has turned to the war between Israel and Hamas. Congress is preoccupied with its inability to accomplish its most fundamental job: passing an annual budget to keep the government operating for more than a few months. Everything now is colored by next year’s presidential election.
A much more insidious factor also is in play — former Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) calls it the “Trump Effect.” It is democracy’s deadliest threat right now, in both Ukraine and the United States.
Under the Constitution, Congress is supposed to prevent presidents from abusing their power. Donald Trump may be the first time a Congress has had to stop the abuses of a former president. Trump plotted to remain in power after he lost the office to Joe Biden. He failed, so he has maintained a MAGA cult in the electorate and House-broken Congress’s Republicans by threatening their reelections.
We might wonder why Trump is using this leverage against Ukraine — or more to the point, in favor of Putin. Something other than his admiration for despots seems at work. He appears to have three goals:
- Make Biden look weak leading up to the election;
- Repay Putin for the Russian leader’s many years of help;
- Punish Zelensky for refusing Trump’s pressure to dig up dirt on the Bidens in 2019.
In short, Ukraine’s problems are Trump’s opportunity for a hat trick. Here are some details:
Thwarting Biden: President Biden promised that America will stand by Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression. “We cannot, under any circumstances, allow U.S. support to Ukraine to be interrupted,” he said in October. “I want to assure our American allies … that you can count on our support. We will not walk away.”
But House Republicans are ignoring Ukraine, and a CBS News/YouGov poll in September found that only 39 percent of Republican voters agree the U.S. should send more weapons there — a 10-point drop in support since February.
Earlier this month, the House approved aid for Israel’s war against Hamas, but not Ukraine’s war against Putin. Robert Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University, called this an example of Trump’s sway over the Republican Party. “This [bill] is clearly a show for the Trump base of the Republican Party, which opposes anything related to Ukraine,” Shapiro said. He noted that Trump still resents being impeached for trying to extort Zelensky by illegally withholding money Congress appropriated for military assistance to the country.
Repaying Putin: An investigation in 2018 by Foreign Policy magazine found Trump was in “desperate financial trouble” in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Wealthy Russians and people from the former Soviet republics bailed him out. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. confirmed that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets.”
That was not nearly as valuable as Putin’s help to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Three years later, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded Putin ordered his agents to leak information damaging to Clinton, post disinformation on social media, and “undermine the U.S. Democratic process.”
Most recently, Putin jumped back into American politics to defend Trump against his indictments, calling them “the persecution of a political rival for political reasons” and evidence of “the rottenness of the American political system.” And in September, consistent with Trump’s warning, “If you go after me, I’m coming for you,” a Russian company used the dark web to reveal the names and personal information of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and the 23 grand jurors who indicted Trump and his allies for interfering in Georgia’s 2020 election.
Using Ukraine aid for extortion (again): Undeterred by his impeachment for extorting Zelensky, Trump is at it again. However, he’s trying to squeeze the Biden administration this time.
During a rally in July, he said, “Congress should refuse to authorize a single additional shipment of our depleted weapons stockpiles … to Ukraine until the FBI, DOJ and IRS hand over every scrap of evidence they have on the Biden Crime Family’s corrupt business dealings.” He added his usual threat that any Republicans who didn’t comply should face primary challenges.
When American presidents leave office, they usually write books and build libraries. Instead, Trump presides as an ex officio autocrat over a brainwashed base, a spineless Republican contingent in Congress, and a private militia drawn from the more than 1,200 racist and anti-government organizations operating in the U.S. He is using these weapons to win back the far more potent powers of the presidency.
Voters are supposed to check and balance such behavior by denying the White House to autocrats and despots. Yet Trump leads Biden in the polls. The Washington Post states, “Taking their cue from Trump, Republicans viewed Putin more favorably than they viewed President Biden, Kamala Harris or Nancy Pelosi.” With virtually no resistance, Trump has destroyed the Republican Party and replaced it with a “Putin Wing” in the nation’s politics. That’s the Trump Effect.
Our 250-year-old democracy is not broken yet, but it’s cracking. Eleven generations so far have nourished our freedom. Hundreds of thousands of men and women have died in combat and consecrated democracy with their blood. This generation’s duty is to defend it again. Trump and the Trump Effect are the enemy.
We must ask why more of our leaders are not rising to democracy’s defense. One hundred forty-seven Republicans voted on Jan. 6, 2021, to subvert the 2020 election. The 14th Amendment says they are no longer qualified to serve because they violated their oaths to the Constitution. They are still there.
The work of the Jan. 6 committee was one of the finest moments in congressional history. But the work is not nearly over. Democrats should not sit back and count on the justice system to finish the job. Nor is it enough to introduce bills that stand no chance of passage. We need leaders to invoke our better angels, arm us against the GOP’s culture of grievance and fear, teach us to treasure diversity and mobilize us against anyone who dehumanizes their opponents to make violence easier. We can still remember where that leads.
There is no more important issue in next year’s election than the defense of freedom here, in Ukraine, and wherever despots would kill it. It is one of those blessings people don’t appreciate until it’s gone. But if we let it go, it’s doubtful we will ever get it back.
William S. Becker is co-editor of and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People,” and contributor to the just-published book, “Democracy in a Hotter Time.” He has served in several state and federal government roles, including executive assistant to the attorney general of Wisconsin. He is currently executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan climate policy think tank unaffiliated with the White House.
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