Several key Republican senators on Tuesday pushed back against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent comments that US support for Ukraine is not a “vital” national interest, exposing a key intraparty fault line ahead of the 2024 election.
“To say this doesn’t matter is to say that war crimes don’t matter,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression will “go beyond Ukraine” and that “if you don’t get that, you’re not listening to what he’s saying.”
On Monday, DeSantis, who has not yet announced a presidential bid, said in a statement responding to a questionnaire from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that “while the US has many vital national interests … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”
“We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland, especially as tens of thousands of Americans are dying every year from narcotics smuggled across our open border and our weapons arsenals critical for our own security are rapidly being depleted,” DeSantis wrote in response to Carlson’s request for 2024 GOP presidential candidates to provide their views on the war in Ukraine.
The comments put DeSantis ideologically closer in line with former President Donald Trump, the biggest name in the 2024 primary, and at odds with the more traditional GOP party positioning of former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has already entered the race, and former Vice President Mike Pence, who is widely expected to. Trump and DeSantis led the potential GOP field in a new CNN poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents released Tuesday.
Sen. John Cornyn told CNN that he was “kind of surprised” to learn DeSantis’ position, noting that it “raises questions.”
“I mean, Gov. DeSantis is a veteran. He’s a smart guy. I think he’s a been a very good governor and I don’t understand him saying that Ukraine isn’t important to the United States,” the Texas Republican said.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune said he disagrees with DeSantis, “but that there is a diversity of opinion among members of our party. He’s not alone on that.”
“There are probably going to be other candidates in ’24 on our side who may share that view, and certainly it’s held by Republicans around the country,” the South Dakota Republican said. “I would argue, and I think the majority of people in this country recognize, how important it is that Ukraine repel Russia and stop this aggression and they be a sovereign country.”
Speaking on the Hugh Hewitt radio program, Sen. Marco Rubio dismissed DeSantis’ characterization of the war as a “territorial dispute.”
“It’s not a territorial dispute in the sense that any more than it would be a territorial dispute if the United States decided that it wanted to invade Canada or take over the Bahamas,” said Rubio, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee and is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Just because someone claims something doesn’t mean it belongs to them.”
The Florida Republican added, “There is a national security interest in Ukraine. It’s not the number one national security interest the United States has, but it’s an important one.”
Asked about DeSantis saying that funding Ukraine is not in the US’ interest, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee also pushed back.
“I personally think that the United States should support Ukraine funding. There’s always debates about how that should be done, and what level it should be done at, but no, I believe the United States should support the effort in Ukraine,” said Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho.
He added: “I think that if we don’t hold the line in Ukraine now, we’re simply going to see the issue expand into other European nations.”
Haley – who like Trump announced an early bid for the GOP nomination – on Tuesday made her most pointed comments on DeSantis yet, claiming he was “copying” Trump’s position on Ukraine.
“President Trump is right when he says Governor DeSantis is copying him—first in his style, then on entitlement reform, and now on Ukraine,” Haley said in a statement.
Trump told reporters traveling with him Monday night that he believed DeSantis was “following what I am saying” on Ukraine, according to CBS News. “It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants,” the former president added.
A February review from CNN’s KFile found DeSantis once strongly supported arming Ukraine as a conservative congressman in 2014 and 2015 to deter Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe. In an interview from December 2017, DeSantis continued to align himself with the “Reagan school that’s tough on Russia,” criticizing Democrats for not supporting sending aid to Ukraine.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Ted Barrett, Morgan Rimmer, Steve Contorno, Kate Sullivan, Jessica Dean, Kaitlan Collins, Kristen Holmes Em Steck, Andrew Kaczynski and Olivia Alafriz contributed to this report.