Counterfactuals always involve guessing. But one counterfactual proposition that seems increasingly obvious is that if Donald Trump had secured a second term in office, Ukraine would be losing the war right now.
Ukraine’s successful defense has required several factors, including the bravery and skill of its armed forces and continued Russian bungling. But it has also relied on a unified and energetic response from its western allies, which has included moral solidarity, economic sanctions, intelligence sharing, and a massive infusion of weapons. If Trump still occupied the Oval Office, none of these would be occurring.
A month ago, Trump’s close friend and supporter Sean Hannity tried repeatedly to coax him to call Vladimir Putin a bad person or admit his slaughter of civilians was wrong. Trump kept refusing. After Trump declined the first opportunity, Hannity offered another: “You came under some fire when you said that Vladimir Putin is very smart. I think I know you a little bit better than most people in the media, and I think you also recognize he’s evil, do you not?”
After Trump declined again and boasted of his closeness with Putin, Hannity tried suggesting Russia was an “enemy” Trump was strategically keeping close. Trump declined that opportunity, too, saying, “I got along with these people. I got along with them well.”
Last night, Hannity tried again. Referring back to their previous conversation, he asked Trump if Russia’s invasion was “evil.” Trump declined, instead ranting about the weakness of NATO: “I think in a hundred years, people are gonna look back and they’re going to say, ‘How did we stand back, and NATO stand back?’ — which, in many ways, I’ve called a paper tiger.” He did not concede Russia was morally wrong to invade.
Russia hawks within the Republican Party have tried to cast Trump as the true Russia hawk, and they have turned his obsessive attacks on NATO into evidence he was cleverly trying to strengthen the alliance all along by prodding fellow members to increase their defense spending.
His rant last night ought to dispel that notion. NATO allies have increased their military spending in response to Russia’s invasion. But rather than acknowledge this success — the outcome he supposedly wants — Trump continued to bash them as worthless leeches.
What truly gave the game away was when Trump segued to his economic grievances with western Europe. “And then they take advantage of us on trade,” he ranted to Hannity, revising his long-standing claim that western Europe is the true enemy of the American people (“Every bit as bad as China”). It is beyond obvious that Trump’s insults to NATO allies were not intended to strengthen their commitment but a bad-faith demand put forward as a pretext for the United States to abandon the alliance altogether. (Several of Trump’s former national security advisers have said Trump would have done so in a second term, and the loss of this expected outcome is the best explanation of why Putin decided to invade Ukraine now.)
In private, Trump has repeatedly expressed his existential loathing for Ukraine, which he has described as “corrupt” — an epithet he does not use for more corrupt states like Russia — and not a real country, insisting that its eastern regions properly belong to Russia. The public analog of those beliefs can be seen in the votes of the Republican Party’s anti-Ukraine wing in Congress, which has voted against sanctions on Russia and support for NATO.
That wing, not coincidentally, comprises the faction of the party that genuinely shares his foreign-policy outlook. If you want to imagine a Trumpian response to the invasion, merely project the voting record of the America First wing onto the executive branch.
The sanctions put together by the Biden administration would almost certainly not exist. There would likely be little or no military assistance or intelligence sharing. NATO might not exist at all. And rather than a president who goes off script with an overly aggressive condemnation of Putin’s culpability, we would have a president who does the opposite.
Trump has never been willing to even state clearly Putin’s most heinous acts. When Russia poisoned Alexei Navalny, a crime condemned across the globe, Trump repeatedly refused to admit Putin had anything to do with it, and reporters eventually gave up asking him about it. (Trump still hasn’t admitted Putin’s culpability.) Trump’s priorities would be to ensure cheap gasoline and keep Ukrainian refugees out of the country.
Trump’s anger at the “deep state” was not mere paranoia. The bureaucracy often thwarted his goals — most notably around Ukraine, where his efforts to withhold military aid and extort Volodymyr Zelensky into smearing Joe Biden ultimately petered out. But a reelected, or reinstalled, President Trump would have a much freer hand. Had 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin swung the other way, Zelensky would probably at this moment be in exile, in a Russian prison, or dead.