Why Is Trump Trying to Make Ukraine Lose?

Nearly half a year has passed since the White House asked Congress for another round of American aid for Ukraine. Since that time, at least three different legislative efforts to provide weapons, ammunition, and support for the Ukrainian army have failed.

Kevin McCarthy, the former House speaker, was supposed to make sure that the money was made available. But in the course of trying, he lost his job.

The Senate negotiated a border compromise (including measures border guards said were urgently needed) that was supposed to pass alongside aid to Ukraine. But Senate Republicans who had supported that effort suddenly changed their minds and blocked the legislation.

Finally, the Senate passed another bill, including aid for Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel, and the civilians of Gaza, and sent it to the House. But in order to avoid having to vote on that legislation, the current House speaker, Mike Johnson, sent the House on vacation for two weeks. That bill still hangs in limbo. A majority is prepared to pass it, and would do so if a vote were held. Johnson is maneuvering to prevent that from happening.

Maybe the extraordinary nature of the current moment is hard to see from inside the United States, where so many other stories are competing for attention. But from the outside—from Warsaw, where I live part-time; from Munich, where I attended a major annual security conference earlier this month; from London, Berlin, and other allied capitals—nobody doubts that these circumstances are unprecedented. Donald Trump, who is not the president, is using a minority of Republicans to block aid to Ukraine, to undermine the actual president’s foreign policy, and to weaken American power and credibility.

For outsiders, this reality is mind-boggling, difficult to comprehend and impossible to understand. In the week that the border compromise failed, I happened to meet a senior European Union official visiting Washington. He asked me if congressional Republicans realized that a Russian victory in Ukraine would discredit the United States, weaken American alliances in Europe and Asia, embolden China, encourage Iran, and increase the likelihood of invasions of South Korea or Taiwan. Don’t they realize? Yes, I told him, they realize. Johnson himself said, in February 2022, that a failure to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine “empowers other dictators, other terrorists and tyrants around the world … If they perceive that America is weak or unable to act decisively, then it invites aggression in many different ways.” But now the speaker is so frightened by Trump that he no longer cares. Or perhaps he is so afraid of losing his seat that he can’t afford to care. My European colleague shook his head, not because he didn’t believe me, but because it was so hard for him to hear.

[David Frum: They do it for Trump]

Since then, I’ve had a version of that conversation with many other Europeans, in Munich and elsewhere, and indeed many Americans. Intellectually, they understand that the Republican minority is blocking this money on behalf of Trump. They watched first McCarthy, then Johnson, fly to Mar-a-Lago to take instructions. They know that Senator Lindsey Graham, a prominent figure at the Munich Security Conference for decades, backed out abruptly this year after talking with Trump. They see that Donald Trump Jr. routinely attacks legislators who vote for aid to Ukraine, suggesting that they be primaried. The ex-president’s son has also said the U.S. should “cut off the money” to Ukrainians, because “it’s the only way to get them to the table.” In other words, it’s the only way to make Ukraine lose.

Many also understand that Trump is less interested in “fixing the border,” the project he forced the Senate to abandon, than he is in damaging Ukraine. He surely knows, as everybody does, that the Ukrainians are low on ammunition. He must also know that, right now, no one except the U.S. can help. Although European countries now collectively donate more money to Ukraine than we do (and the numbers are rising), they don’t yet have the industrial capacity to sustain the Ukrainian army. By the end of this year, European production will probably be sufficient to supply the Ukrainians, to help them outlast the Russians and win the war. But for the next nine months, U.S. military support is needed.

Yet Trump wants Congress to block it. Why? This is the part that nobody understands. Unlike his son, Trump himself rarely talks about Ukraine, because his position isn’t popular. Most Americans don’t want Russia to win.

Often, Trump’s motives are described as “isolationist,” but this is not quite right. The isolationists of the past were figures such as Senator Robert Taft, the son of an American president and the grandson of an American secretary of war. Taft, a loyal member of the Republican Party, opposed U.S. involvement in World War II because, as he once said, an “overambitious foreign policy” could “destroy our armies and prove a real threat to the liberty of the people of the United States.” But Trump is not concerned about our armies. He disdains our soldiers as “suckers” and “losers.” I can’t imagine that he is terribly worried about the “liberty of the people of the United States” either, given that he has already tried once to overthrow the American electoral system, and might well do it again.

Trump and the people around him are clearly not isolationists in the old-fashioned sense. An isolationist wants to disengage from the world. Trump wants to remain engaged with the world, but on different terms. Trump has said repeatedly that he wants a “deal” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and maybe this is what he means: If Ukraine is partitioned, or if Ukraine loses the war, then Trump could twist that situation to his own advantage. Perhaps, some speculate, Trump wants to let Russia back into international oil markets and get something in return for that. But that explanation might be too complex: Maybe he just wants to damage President Joe Biden, or he thinks Putin will help him win the 2024 election. The Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee was very beneficial to Trump in 2016; perhaps it could happen again.

Trump is already behaving like the autocrats he admires, pursuing transactional politics that will profoundly weaken the United States. But he doesn’t care. Liz Cheney, one of the few Republicans who understands the significance of this moment, describes the stakes like this: “We are at a turning point in the history not just of this nation, but of the world.” Once the U.S. is no longer the security guarantor for Europe, and once the U.S. is no longer trusted in Asia, then some nations will begin to hedge, to make their own deals with Russia and China. Others will seek their own nuclear shields. Companies in Europe and elsewhere that now spend billions on U.S. energy investments or U.S. weapons will make different kinds of contracts. The United States will lose the dominant role it has played in the democratic world since 1945.

[Michael Schuman: Why Xi wants Trump to win]

All of this could happen even if Trump doesn’t win the election. Right now, even if he never regains the White House, he is already dictating U.S. foreign policy, shaping perceptions of America in the world. Even if the funding for Ukraine ultimately passes, the damage he has done to all of America’s relationships is real. Anton Hofreiter, a member of the German Parliament, told me in Munich that he fears Europe could someday be competing against three autocracies: “Russia, China, and the United States.” When he said that, it was my turn to shake my head, not because I didn’t believe him, but because it was so hard to hear.

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