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Republicans used to compare talking to Moscow to talking to Hitler. Trump changed that.

- December 14, 2017

Editor’s note: We asked James Goldgeier to revisit his July 2017 analysis on President Trump’s relations with Russia.

The Dec. 14 story in the Washington Post was the most detailed yet on how far Donald Trump will go to avoid admitting Russia’s interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election, and how much his advisers tiptoe around the subject for fear of destroying any meeting with him.  As one former U.S. intelligence official is quoted as saying, “If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference — that takes the [Presidential Daily Brief] off the rails.” For a Republican president, it’s an extraordinary turnabout after decades of GOP toughness toward the Kremlin.

Let’s consider that July 17 tweet, when Trump said that most politicians would have done what his son, Donald Trump Jr., and other Trump campaign officials did when they met Russians promising secret information on Hillary Clinton.

Republicans used to compete with each other over who was tougher on Russia (or, more precisely, the Soviet Union), and to condemn Democrats for their purported softness. Now, Trump sees nothing wrong with his son meeting a person who had been described to him as a “Russian government attorney,” in order to provide “high level and sensitive information” that was described as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Here’s how dramatically the Republican position has changed.

Being tough on Russia was once the name of the game

During the Cold War, anti-communism was the glue that held the GOP together. In the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans of all stripes took great political advantage in criticizing Democratic presidential candidates, such as George McGovern and Michael Dukakis, as being too weak to stand up for U.S. interests in the face of the threat from Moscow.

Conservative Republicans saw it to their advantage to criticize not just Democrats but members of their own party for showing any signs of appeasement of Moscow.

Most people remember Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter as the victory of a Republican champion of a strong defense in the face of the Soviet threat after four years of weak Democratic foreign policy leadership. But Reagan had built his political fortunes within his own party by attacking the detente, or lessening of tensions, with Moscow initiated by Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and national security adviser/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as too accommodating of the Soviet Union.

Once in office, however, even Reagan himself  was not immune to such critiques.  As he prepared to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time in November 1985, who was out in front leading the charge against him? None other than Newt Gingrich, who called that meeting “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”

The battle between realists and neoconservatives dominated the GOP

GOP foreign policy debates were not just over exactly how tough to get with the Soviets. The main battle for the direction of Republican policy over the past four decades has been between realists, who traditionally focus on other states’ power but are less concerned with their domestic politics, and neoconservatives, who looked for the United States to use its power to promote its ideals.

Neoconservatives applauded Reagan’s critique of the Nixon/Kissinger policy of detente (an easing of hostilities). When the Soviet Union disappeared in December 1991, the realism of George H.W. Bush, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and Secretary of State James Baker was dominant and was quickly attacked by the neoconservatives for not taking enough advantage of the Cold War victory to promote democracy across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The realists and neoconservatives continued to argue throughout the 1990s, culminating in the battles in the George W. Bush administration over the war in Iraq.

Today, both realists and neoconservatives are united in their displeasure over U.S. foreign policy in general and America’s Russia policy in particular: simply peruse Scowcroft protege and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass’s Twitter feed or his colleague Max Boot’s commentary. In the face of the intelligence community’s assessments of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the old GOP would have shown outrage.  The new GOP seems to be trying to sweep the issue under the rug.

Trump is an outlier, but everyone is following

If Trump were a realist, he would be seeking to deal with Russia from a position of strength, not looking to accommodate Putin from the get-go.  If he were a neoconservative, he would be pressing Putin on his abysmal human rights record. Instead, he is praising Putin for being strong and being tough. And it is unimaginable that any other president would have merely accepted Putin’s denial of election interference and moved on.

So why hasn’t the GOP spoken up? Yes, there are occasional remarks by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey O. Graham suggesting Donald Trump is getting hoodwinked by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose efforts working with the Trump campaign to swing the 2016 presidential race are under daily scrutiny.

For the most part, however, GOP voters and GOP elites have shrugged off behavior that would have led to outrage in the past. Since it is hard to imagine that a Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or even John Kasich would have been this accommodating of Putin, is the party of Ronald Reagan really prepared to become the party of Trump on foreign policy, especially in America’s relations with Russia?

The New York Times recently noted that some conservatives have admired Putin even before Trump’s rise; today, a number of conservatives are cutting Trump slack because they see Putin as a strong leader willing to stand up for traditional values. But that does not explain why many other Republicans, particularly in Congress, have stayed so quiet even as the revelations pile up.

Republicans didn’t pay attention to Russia for a long time

Part of the problem for the GOP is that the party’s attention was elsewhere for so long. In the 1990s, with Russia weakened and seemingly embracing democracy during the Boris Yeltsin years, the neoconservatives turned their attention to China, Iraq and Iran. Realists, meanwhile, largely lost interest as Russia’s standing as a great power declined.  While the 2008 Russia-Georgia war grabbed some attention, it wasn’t really until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 that many in the GOP dusted off the old Cold War playbook to attack Obama for not being tough enough. Coupled with the alternative conservative narrative about Putin as a strong leader, the GOPers who want to get tough on Russia face head winds, and they’re out of practice.

For now, Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan are saying as little as possible. Potential 2020 Republican candidates serving in the administration, such as Vice President Pence and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, are doing their best to distance themselves from the swirling controversy. Across the GOP, there is fear of antagonizing Trump’s base going into the 2018 midterm elections.

Are Republicans really ready to capitulate to Vladimir Putin, whose No. 1 foreign policy priorities since he became president have been to undermine U.S. power and create opportunities for Russia to flex its muscle?  It is hard to imagine they are, but in the era of Trump, they appear to believe that keeping the Party together requires them to do so.

James Goldgeier is Visiting Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on twitter @JimGoldgeier.