The Republican Plot Against Donald Trump
The inside story of how Congress is pursuing endless war in Ukraine—and trying to stop a Trump election.
This weekend, Senate Democrats (joined by a few Republicans, including most Republican leadership) forced through a “security supplemental” that spends close to $100 billion, most of it on Ukraine. It was the culmination of months of secretive negotiations on border security. Those negotiations produced a border security product unacceptable to most Republicans, so then Republicans voted it down, and then an hour later we were debating a security supplemental with border security stripped out.
The quick pivot, refusal to negotiate another round on border security, and immediate shift to blame Trump confirmed one thing: Republican leadership wasn’t serious about border security. They cared most about Ukraine funding and saw the border negotiations as a distraction. This extinguished any hope of real border security before the negotiation began.
The story our leadership tells is that the “politics of border security” had changed because of Donald Trump. James Lankford dutifully negotiated a bipartisan border product. Conservative Republicans encouraged this negotiation. When the product took shape, Donald Trump demanded conservatives walk. Trump argued that Joe Biden didn’t need a border security package—which was true—so Republicans should ask simply that Joe Biden do his job. This intervention allegedly killed a great piece of border policy.
This is a fairytale that makes conservative senators and Donald Trump look bad, perhaps by design. In truth, the demands conservative senators made at the beginning of the negotiation went like this: Joe Biden can fix this problem, but he refuses, so we must make him do his job. This posture came along specific demands from senators ranging from Ukraine aid supporters like Marco Rubio to Ukraine aid skeptics like me, and those in the middle like Ron Johnson. We argued that we could condition further Ukraine aid on decreased illegal border crossings. In other words, Congress would appropriate money to Ukraine in stages: if Biden refused to drive down border crossings, he wouldn’t get his money for Ukraine.
The deal, as envisioned by conservatives, was apparently never on the table. According to both Democratic colleagues and some Republicans, this is because Republican leadership—specifically Mitch McConnell—refused to push the Democrats on this issue. Other Republicans have argued instead that even if Mitch McConnell empowered Lankford to make this demand, Democrats would have never agreed.
Obviously, this latter view reflects more favorably on Mitch McConnell, but only by a little, because it suggests a massive asymmetry in negotiating leverage. If Democrats are desperate for Ukraine aid, and Republicans—at least the negotiating Republicans—are also desperate for Ukraine aid, border security would inevitably land on the chopping block.
Did Trump oppose a deal? He certainly opposed the deal that was on the table. It would have done little to secure the border in the future, would have been a massive political gift to the Democrats, and would constrain Trump’s border enforcement if he was ever elected president. This last point deserves extra emphasis: these bipartisan deals always seem to contain provisions that would put the next president, whoever that is, in a box.
Given its substance, it is hardly surprising that he opposed the deal, but most Republicans opposed the deal well before he weighed in—publicly or privately. In fact, the only conversation I had with Donald Trump about the border deal was a day after the text came out, well after I had opposed the bill’s headline provisions. “Why do you guys want to give these people such a gift? It’s stupid.” It was an accurate point, but it didn’t change anyone’s mind because most of us already agreed with the former president.
So the deal fell apart, and the way it fell apart was the height of political malpractice. The text—370 pages of it—dropped late Sunday, February 4. We had a Republican conference meeting on Monday, well before anyone had time to digest major provisions. McConnell left the meeting and praised the bill but criticized the changing political dynamics. He blamed Donald Trump. He blamed the House of Representatives.
It’s hard to imagine a more damaging political message: Hey everyone, we’ve got great bipartisan policy, but we’re going to kill it because the knuckle draggers don’t like it. It was a gift to Democrats and everyone knew it. Senate candidates across the country, many of whom are allies of Mitch McConnell, called me to complain bitterly of the predicament created by leadership in Washington.
Normally, spending bills go through months of review, committee markups, and hours of debate. The text of the Ukraine supplemental was distributed to Hill staff on Wednesday, February 7, and the first procedural vote was taken less than a day later. On February 5, many senators had emphasized the importance of doing something on the border before action was taken on Ukraine. Two days later, at least some of them had decided that fighting for border security for an hour had checked the box, and they were ready to move on to their real priority: funding for Ukraine. The bill will pass, albeit by a tiny margin, with a majority of Republicans opposing the bait and switch.
This current episode is finished, at least in the senate, but there will be many reruns. The form of this debacle will replay itself, to the great detriment of Donald Trump and other Republican candidates. Three facts are important. First, voters range from ambivalent to outright hostile of further Ukraine aid. Second, a subset of Republican senators are obsessed with Ukraine aid, caring about this issue more than any other. Third, a majority of House Republicans oppose further Ukraine aid, and demand strong border security measures regardless of the details of a Ukraine package.
It’s easy to sketch out how these facts will manifest themselves in our political reality. The senate Ukraine bill goes to the House, where leadership there cannot bring it up to the floor without endangering House Speaker Mike Johnson. So the House will either refuse to vote on the Ukraine bill, or will attach a strong border security bill (like HR2) and then send it back to the Senate. In public and private, Senate Republican leadership will undermine the House leadership and the Republican presidential nominee.
Democrats could try to force House leadership to bring up Ukraine aid with a discharge petition, an approach that would hand control of the House floor over to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries with the aid of a few House Republicans. Speaker Johnson could fight this maneuver aggressively. If he does, he will be attacked by Senate Republican leaders, at least privately, and will face another negative news cycle. If he doesn’t, his own conference will turn against him. The cycle will replay over the government funding deadline in March. It will replay over the omnibus debate that follows. It will replay any time the U.S. Congress must actually do something.
Whatever shape this takes, the basic game will be the same. The media, obsessed with any story that makes Trump look bad, will blame him and “MAGA Republicans” in the House. They will blame Trump for the chaos. They will blame Trump for “extremism.” They will refuse to report on Biden’s failings and instead focus on internal Republican division. They will point to Republican senators attacking Donald Trump and House Republicans, just as they have over the last week. Democrats will run advertisements: “See, even Mitch McConnell thinks Trump is being ridiculous.” And they will rinse and repeat this narrative all the way to the November election.
This is how you save Joe Biden’s presidency: By taking the chaos of Joe Biden’s tenure and making it about Republican chaos being even worse. By taking the extremism of Democrats and making it all about the crazy right-wingers in the House and Mar-a-Lago.
To be clear, this doesn’t assume malice. The Republican establishment of Washington is so obsessively committed to Ukraine that they will use every tool at their disposal to apply pressure to other Republicans to write that big Ukraine check. The problem is that every time they apply pressure, they create an opening for Democrats and the media to tank our nominee.
For months, I have been confident that Donald Trump would be reelected as president. But this is how you snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Republican establishment is going to war for more Ukraine money. They don’t care if a second Trump term is collateral damage.
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But, of course, they have an insurance plan even if Trump pulls it off. Though few have noticed, buried in the bill’s text is a kill switch for the next Trump presidency. The legislation explicitly requires funding for Ukraine well into the next presidential term. The Washington Post has already reported this provision was added to control Donald Trump.
It gets worse. Back in 2019, Democrats articulated a novel theory of impeachment, based on Trump’s refusal to spend money from the USAI—Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. Five years after impeaching Trump for refusing to spend money on Ukraine, they have drafted a new law that again requires Trump to spend money on Ukraine. If he negotiates an end to the war, as he has promised to do, they will undoubtedly argue that he has broken the law. We are nearly a year away from an election that could give Trump the presidency, and Ukraine-obsessive Republicans have already given the Democrats a predicate to impeach him.
Slava Ukraini, America be damned.