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Finally, a glimmer of hope on Ukraine aid — maybe

If Trump wins, this could be the last US assistance package for some time

Then-President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. As a candidate for a new term in the White House, Trump is siding more with Putin than with America’s allies in Europe. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Then-President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. As a candidate for a new term in the White House, Trump is siding more with Putin than with America’s allies in Europe. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

The line is widely, but incorrectly, attributed to Winston Churchill. In truth, it is probably a modification of a remark made by 20th century Israeli statesman Abba Eban. But whatever its provenance, the crack perfectly captures the mood this week: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

After more twists than a goat path across the mountains, the Senate is poised to finally approve this week an often-beleaguered $95 billion aid package for Ukraine and Israel, plus a little bit for Taiwan.

While we have come a long way from the hawkish GOP of Ronald Reagan, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., clinging to the remnants of his power, did manage to deliver 18 Republicans on a key procedural vote on Sunday.

Nothing about the House is easy to predict, with its squeaker Republican majority and its speaker who can’t count votes. But for the first time in months, it seems plausible that the Senate emergency foreign aid bill could eventually win House approval.

Only the foolhardy would dare predict exactly how House approval will come about.

Maybe — yeah, sure — Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., will defy the far-right wing of his caucus and immediately bring the Senate bill to the floor. Maybe a cumbersome discharge petition will be required. Or, most likely, there will be threats and theatrics, feints and fireworks, before the Ukraine-Israel legislation wins final approval.

But that’s where the good news ends.

At a campaign rally in South Carolina Saturday night, Donald Trump once again said the secret part aloud.

Posing a scenario under which Russia attacks a NATO ally that has not paid enough (in Trump’s view) for its own defense, the oft-indicted former president said he would tell them, “No I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”

Of course, it is comical that Trump — who has built his career around ducking bills, stiffing contractors and lawyers, and taking refuge in business bankruptcies — suddenly is the moralistic apostle of fiscal responsibility.

But beyond the obvious jokes is a frightening message: A second-term President Trump would probably withdraw from NATO and would give Russian President Vladimir Putin carte blanche to impose a 21st-century version of the Iron Curtain.

The best way to win Trump’s praise is to be an authoritarian leader or an out-and-out dictator.

We, of course, learned about Trump’s favorite pen pal when he was in the White House: Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s brutal leader.

And earlier this month in a Fox News interview, Trump gushed about Chinese President Xi Jinping: “Look, I want China to do great, I do. And I like President Xi a lot, he was a very good friend of mine during my term.”

During Trump’s first — and hopefully only — term, too many Democrats embraced unproven or debunked conspiracy theories to explain the then-president’s obvious affection for Putin. But the answer may be simpler than it seems: Trump likes thugs.

In fact, with Trump in the White House for a second time, it is possible to imagine a new Axis of Evil: Russia, China, North Korea and America.

What has become fascinating is the “Cult of Putin” on the far right of the Republican Party. Tucker Carlson, who not long ago was the top-rated Fox News host, just made a pilgrimage to Moscow for a sycophantic interview.

Movies like “Oppenheimer” remind us that in the late 1930s (and afterwards) many American left-wingers were smitten with the Soviet Union and willfully blinded themselves to the brutality and mass murders of Joseph Stalin.

Now, encouraged by Trump, many Republicans have become equally gullible about Putin.

In their telling, Putin’s unprovoked 2022 invasion of Ukraine was no concern to America. This head-in-the-sand attitude is reminiscent of what British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said in 1938 in a radio broadcast from Munich about “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

There is, of course, no need to elevate the stakes in the coming presidential election. With Trump making clear that he is running for retribution and signaling his continual contempt for the rule of law, it is not hard to argue that democracy will be on the ballot in 2024.

But also at stake — as Trump made clear over the weekend — is the future of NATO and America’s alliance with Europe.

It is worth remembering that NATO itself probably never would have been created if an ailing Franklin D. Roosevelt had not duplicitously switched vice presidential running mates at the 1944 convention.

FDR’s vice president going into the convention was Henry Wallace, an ardent New Dealer who had wooly and naive views of the Soviet Union. Ostensibly leaving the veep choice to the Democratic convention, Roosevelt orchestrated the nomination of a Missouri senator named Harry Truman.

After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, less than three months after he was inaugurated for a fourth term, Truman became the president who boldly countered Soviet expansionism in Europe with NATO and the Marshall Plan.

America’s record prosperity for nearly 80 years is interwoven with our alliances. Rather than being played for a sucker, we greatly benefit from global stability in Europe and most of Asia.

With Ukraine desperately in need of munitions and suffering from war weariness, the American aid package, assuming it is eventually approved, will bring welcome relief to Kyiv.

Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for The New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is a veteran of USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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