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Some MAGA Republicans Break with Fox Over Ukraine

The network’s primetime anchors oppose Biden’s support for Ukraine. A few in the GOP have stood up to them.
February 24, 2023
Some MAGA Republicans Break with Fox Over Ukraine
A person holds up as sign as he joins others gathered for "Truth Tuesday" as they participate in a "Fox can't handle the truth" protest outside Fox News headquarters on June 14, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The war in Ukraine has moved from city to city: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Bakhmut. But its outcome, oddly, might be decided by a political contest thousands of miles away. The contest isn’t between Ukrainians and Russians. It’s between Republican hawks and Fox News.

Vladimir Putin is betting that the international alliance in defense of Ukraine will unravel. His best shot to win that bet is in the United States, where polls show that public support for arming Ukraine has declined, particularly among Republicans. War fatigue and unease in the Republican base are being channeled and fueled by Fox News, whose primetime anchors have worked to undermine America’s support for Ukraine.

The question now is whether congressional Republicans and GOP presidential candidates—the people who could cut off further aid to Kyiv—will withstand this pressure. The struggle is playing out on live TV, as Fox anchors press these politicians to disown or curtail our commitment to Ukraine.

The pressure from Fox’s side is intense. “Biden and the Democrats fought like crazy to stop $2 billion from going to our border wall—but just poured $100 billion into securing Ukraine’s border,” says Jesse Watters. “We’re going to spend billions in Ukraine but ignore our problems at home,” complains Pete Hegseth. “Biden—and, frankly, many Senate Republicans—are happy to give a blank check to Ukraine, even as they drag their feet about a disaster unfolding right here at home,” says Laura Ingraham. Tucker Carlson says we’re subsidizing a “corrupt foreign autocrat”—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—who is bent on “total destruction.”

Some politicians have taken the Fox bait. On Monday, in an interview with Hegseth, former Rep. John Ratcliffe—who served, absurdly, as director of national intelligence under Donald Trump—called the current U.S. policy “Ukraine first, Ohio last,” a reference to the train derailment in that state. Ratcliffe accused President Biden of advocating “welfare and Ukraine pensions and support to the Ukrainian people.” On Thursday, Rep. James Comer, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, castigated Biden for “trying to continue to spend more tax dollars in Ukraine when we have a national emergency in Ohio.” Sen. Mike Lee told Fox & Friends that the “military-industrial complex” was behind Congress’s misguided commitments to Ukraine.

Other Republicans, however, have pushed back. Here’s how they’ve handled the heat from Fox.

1. Rep. Nancy Mace, Hannity, Tuesday.

Hegseth, sitting in for Sean Hannity, begins the interview by complaining that Biden is spending more time in Ukraine than on the border or the train disaster in Ohio. He asks: “If you’re the American people, are you confident in this endless endeavor this administration is undertaking?”

Mace parrots the Fox view. She says Biden’s policy is “Ukraine first, and it’s America last.”

But halfway through the segment, when Hegseth asks what America is getting for “the billions we’re spending” in Ukraine, Mace turns serious. She points out that in 1994, we guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its agreement to surrender its nuclear weapons. And she says we can shorten the war by accelerating aid to hasten Ukraine’s victory. By the end of the interview, Hegseth is still grumbling, but he’s talking about clarifying the U.S. commitment rather than ending it.

2. Nikki Haley, The Faulkner Focus, Tuesday.

The host, Harris Faulkner, asks incredulously, “What do we do at this point—just open the checkbook? How does that help?”

Haley replies:

No, we don’t open the checkbook. We shouldn’t send blank checks. We shouldn’t put troops on the ground. We should give them the equipment to defend themselves, because this is a war that they’re winning. This is not a war about Russia and Ukraine. It’s a war about freedom. And it’s one that we have to win.

That’s a terrific answer. Haley rebuts the blank-check caricature by 1) noting that the U.S. policy does have limits (in particular, no American troops); 2) pointing out that our investment is paying off on the battlefield; and 3) explaining that the fight to defeat Russia’s aggression in Ukraine represents global security and American values.

3. Mike Pence, Hannity, Tuesday.

Hannity is more hawkish than Fox’s other primetime hosts. He asks the former vice president why we’re spending so much money on Ukraine “if you’re not going to fight . . . to win this war.” The question indicates he could go either way, ditching the pro-Ukraine alliance or leaning into it.

Pence starts with the requisite Biden-bashing, but he moves quickly to the larger point. “We’ve got to stay in the fight,” he says, adding, “It’s absolutely essential that we see it through.” He cites the 1985 Reagan Doctrine, summarizing it in his own words: “We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives to defy Soviet-supported aggression.”

Pence points out that the concerns expressed by Hannity and other critics of Biden—that the administration was too slow to act before Putin’s invasion and in war’s early stages, and that European countries must pay a bigger share of the bill—can be acknowledged and addressed without abandoning Ukraine. By the end of the exchange, Hannity is framing his criticism as a call to action: “Europe, in my view, has to step up. Europe has to provide the necessary weapons to win.”

4. Sen. Roger Wicker, America’s Newsroom, Wednesday.

Wicker begins by defending Biden’s trip to Kyiv. “I appreciate what the president said yesterday and again today,” the Mississippi senator says. Partisanship “stops at the water’s edge, and we ought to all applaud the president for supporting Ukraine.”

Wicker, an Air Force veteran, reminds Fox viewers that Ukraine is defending itself “without any American troops.” It just needs equipment. Like other hawks, he urges Biden to send the equipment faster.

Toward the end of the interview, Wicker does something all too rare in politics. Instead of shifting his position to conform to public opinion, he tells the Fox anchors that public opinion will shift back toward supporting Ukraine if the United States and Europe pursue victory. If “we give them what they need to win,” he says of the Ukrainians, “that’ll do a lot to give us some support in Congress—and in American public opinion—that indeed our money is well spent and being matched by the NATO allies.”

5. Rep. Mike Lawler, America Reports, Tuesday.

Like Wicker, Lawler endorses Biden’s trip. “It was good that President Biden made the trip to Ukraine,” he says. He also points out that many congressional Republicans went to the Munich Security Conference to reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine’s defense. “That’s positive, because we need to show a unified support for Ukraine,” he says.

6. Rep. Mike Waltz, Fox & Friends, Tuesday.

The show’s co-anchor, Steve Doocy, says Putin has just announced that Russia is suspending its compliance with a major nuclear weapons treaty. “That’s not good,” Doocy frets.

“No,” agrees Waltz, an Army Special Forces veteran. But he explains to Fox viewers that Russia is doing this because “it’s one of the only cards Putin has left. His conventional military has been completely decimated. So really, all he has left is his strategic nuclear forces.”

These are just a few of the Republican lawmakers and presidential hopefuls who have appeared on Fox News to discuss the war. It’s unclear how many others are willing to defend Ukraine and how long they’ll continue to support it, particularly if the most powerful media organization on the right keeps agitating against American involvement.

To see how easily a politician can fold under this pressure, look at Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and likely presidential candidate. On Monday, he appeared on Fox & Friends just a few hours after Biden’s visit to Kyiv. Here’s a recap of that interview.

It starts with a question about Biden’s trip: “Is this a good move?” DeSantis, a Navy veteran, wants to criticize Biden, but he isn’t sure whether to call him too hawkish or too dovish. He tries both. He faults Biden for pulling out of Afghanistan and for having opposed lethal aid to Ukraine years ago. But then he complains that Biden cares more about protecting Ukraine than about “our own border here at home.”

The interviewer, Lisa Boothe, presses DeSantis to consider public fatigue over the war. She says “a lot of Americans are asking, ‘How much more money? How much more time? How much more human suffering?”

DeSantis takes her cue. He accuses Biden of a “blank check policy,” warns that the war could escalate, and says it isn’t “in our interest to be getting into a proxy war—with China getting involved—over things like the border lands, or over Crimea.”

It’s pretty clear that DeSantis hasn’t thought the issue through. For example, he says Russia is too weak to threaten Europe but too dangerous to antagonize without unacceptable risk. He seems to be looking for a position that’s politically safe in the Republican presidential primaries. So he goes with the Fox line.

Still, it’s encouraging that many other prominent Republicans are willing to go on Fox and push back against the network’s isolationism. These interviews show that valid concerns about burden sharing and the course of the war can be addressed without abandoning our commitment to Ukraine. And they show that if you’re willing to stand up to pressure and make a persuasive case, you can earn respect and change minds. It’s important to listen. But it’s also important to lead.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.