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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

President Biden Stands Up to Putin/Trump

[This was first published on 2/27/2024 a week before the State of the Union but it tracks closely with President Biden's opening salvos against the worlds most dangerous criminal, Vladimir Putin.]

As the war in Europe reaches the two-year mark with dwindling supplies of ammunition, Ukraine funding is stalled in Congress where efforts to impeach President Biden have been revealed to be based on false accusations provided by the Russian intelligence agencies.  While Donald Trump threatens NATO leaders with a hypothetical Russian invasion, Russian political prisoner Alexei Navalny’s death has sharpened President Biden’s rhetoric and commitment to take on his true adversary, Vladimir Putin.

This past week Biden offered condolences in person to Navalny’s widow and daughter, holding Putin responsible for Navalny’s death. He added more than 500 new economic sanctions on Putin and his accomplices. Biden reassured the world that America’s commitment to our European allies in NATO is “sacred” while labeling Trump’s statement “shocking,” adding “it’s dumb, it’s shameful, it’s dangerous, it’s un-American,” and he even called Putin a “crazy SOB.” We should all expect quite a lot more of this from Biden in the coming weeks and months.

Reactions to Navalny’s death have divided elected Republicans, much as they are divided over funding Ukraine’s defense, but some are clear in warning their colleagues that their close relationship with the murderous Putin has the potential to become as great a weakness for Trump and the Republican Party in an election year, as the Dobbs Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. In a social media post honoring Navalny, Republican North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis warned that, “Putin is a murderous, paranoid dictator. History will not be kind to those in America who make apologies for Putin and praise Russian autocracy.”

Like many hot topics during the Trump era, many Republicans are trying to keep out of the controversy. House Speaker Mike Johnson issued a statement calling Putin, “a vicious dictator,” adding, that Navalny’s death was the “latest attempt to send a message to those working to confront Moscow’s aggression.” Even though Johnson tries to portray himself as a member of that category, Johnson sent Congress home for several weeks on vacation with Ukraine funding still not put on the House Floor for a vote. At each turn, Johnson has taken pains to say he supports Ukraine funding but rejected the Senate bill because it did not do enough to change policy at the US border. Actions speak louder than words and Ukraine has been forced to retreat from key strongholds due to lack of ammunition at the front lines.    

The inaction of House Republicans gives Biden the opportunity to create the strong campaign message he desperately needs to attack former president Trump. But this is far more than a political contrast, it is two starkly different views of America’s role in world history. Putin’s Russia is invading neighboring countries and committing war crimes, threatening American allies in Europe, jailing and assassinating journalists and critics, and exporting corruption and authoritarianism around the world. When Biden stands up to Trump, it is good politics, but when he stands up to Putin, Biden is being a strong American president, working with our allies to contain a dangerous adversary.

It is now clear that it was a mistake for Biden and a bipartisan group of Senators to combine Ukraine funding with support for Israel and policy changes at the US border because this has allowed the House Republicans opportunities to block Ukraine funding while talking about other issues. Biden needs to manage the intractable border problems as best he can amid reckless Republican posturing and achieve a cease fire in Gaza to regain a measure of moral standing within key segments of his Democratic base (American Muslims, young voters, and progressives) but he also needs a clean bill funding aid to Ukraine so there is no hiding the degree to which the Republican Party is now furthering Putin’s agenda to block Ukraine funding, destabilize American politics, block nearly all congressional functions, and divide the western alliance.

For more than a decade, Vladimir Putin has been waging, and winning, an information war with the United States of America and the rest of the world. It is a war of information, disinformation, lies, and propaganda. Putin’s messages have changed little since the Bush and Obama administrations. Putin has always maintained that American elections are rigged, our politicians are corrupt, crime is out of control, race relations are distressed, and our leaders are weak and overly reliant on international alliances and treaty organizations like NATO. What has changed, of course, is that he now shares these messages with former (American) President Trump and Putin’s Republican allies. Putin has shown he can now block legislation and drive messaging in the US Congress. At the same time the House Republicans were standing in the way of needed ammunition to Ukraine, they were using Putin provided lies to justify their impeachment investigations against President Biden.   

The GOP is Becoming the PPP (Putin’s Puppets Party)

President Biden has been a harsh critic of Putin since well before the Ukraine invasion, and countless times he has increased his rhetoric as well as American and global sanctions on Putin and his closest allies among the Russian oligarchs. But there is a lot more Biden, America, and our European allies can do to stand up to Putin, and this is the moment for a dramatic escalation in rhetoric, diplomacy, military resources, and criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Putin is many things; the leader of Russia’s government and Russia’s military -- which we now understand is far weaker than we had believed before it failed in Ukraine, but he has thousands of nuclear weapons. Putin has military or paramilitary forces engaged in the Republic of Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and several countries in northern and central Africa. Putin is also the former titular head of the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB) and continues to lead his country’s extensive security, intelligence, propaganda, and disinformation activities. Putin is also the head of the largest and most lethal organized criminal enterprise in the world.

Russia is a kleptocracy, a nation ruled by corruption and thievery. In Russia, criminal syndicates are the government and the government is a criminal syndicate. Nearly every business must kick money back to government inspectors, police, security services, and local authorities to stay open (and alive) and it all flows uphill to Putin, the boss of all bosses. Putin has allied criminal organizations around the world, raising money through drug trafficking, protection rackets, destabilizing countries in Latin America and Africa driving millions to flee violence by seeking to immigrate to North America and Europe.

Biden can and must rise to meet Putin’s challenges on all of the levels on which he is advancing; geopolitical, military, economic, criminal, and cultural. The most experienced person ever to sit in the Oval Office does not need any geopolitical or military advice from us, and our economic recommendations are here. There are independent authorities to make investigation and prosecution decisions, but in many cases, they have done their work, and the facts are on the public record. Special Council Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election scored dozens of guilty pleas, indictments, and convictions, including Trump advisers, and Russian agents, hackers, and disinformation propagandists.

Putin is an indicted war criminal. The International Criminal Court collected extensive and gruesome evidence and indicted Putin for multiple war crimes in Ukraine. Nearly all Americans were united in support for Ukraine as those images filled all of our television screens. The news media will replay these images if Biden refreshes these horror stories because some people are no longer clear about whether Vladimir Putin is evil. The Mueller Report and the Ukraine war crimes are just two of many possible lines for rhetorical prosecution of Putin. We do not know the full record of crimes, war crimes, and murders that have been investigated and reported in secret American files, but President Biden can choose the best stories and evidence to make the case that Putin is the world’s most dangerous criminal.

Propaganda, Culture, Divisions, and Swing Voters

It is important to understand precisely to whom Biden will be making this case. We all know roughly one out of three American voters have acquired an immunity to charges that Trump is a criminal, but we do not know if the same group would tune out the case against Putin. Support for or opposition to Putin currently divides the Republican Party. If Biden can successfully make his case, even some of Trump’s supporters in Congress may choose to distance themselves from potential charges they have become Putin’s surrender monkeys.

It is a tremendous achievement for Putin and Trump that their propaganda flows unchallenged to a third of American voters who have made the choice to tune into their media channels and tune out truth- and reality-based media. This capability did not arrive by accident. It has been built through a sophisticated combination of cultural signals, an intricate yet shifting series of us-versus-them narratives and many lies, to separate supporters from media that offers contradictory facts and evidence. Trump has proven capable of delivering compelling media messages that draw his supporters to the channels he directly controls as even his critics have to repeat his lies in order to refute them.

But if one-third of American voters have locked themselves into Trump’s distorted reality and have tuned out any contradictory evidence, two-thirds remain available to truth, facts, and reason and it is to this majority that Biden must make his case. The numbers in the propaganda war are still on America’s side, and the tide has turned in the culture war. There are a lot of independent voters, and current and former Republicans, many living in the suburbs, many of them women. Even if they are somewhat conservative in their views, they are conflicted on many issues. Some of them have been marching with their children for women’s rights, for black lives, and for LGBTQ acceptance. Many come from military or law enforcement families and were shocked by Trump’s treatment of military secrets, and they do not believe Antifa and the FBI caused the January 6th insurrection. They have concerns about Biden’s age, strength, and ability to do the job, and some are telling pollsters they lean toward Trump if the election were held today, causing concern among Democrats that the national and key state horserace numbers are now too close for comfort. But for several years these voters have been swinging elections away from Trump and his endorsed candidates, and voting against efforts to restrict abortion.

Most American voters remain open to Biden’s economic message and appeals to defend democracy and safeguard reproductive rights. An aggressive prosecution of the case against Vladimir Putin’s many crimes and lies would demonstrate Biden’s strength and leadership and separate these patriotic Americans from Trump’s lies and crimes. The Democrats are on a winning streak in national elections and in the darkest hours we must remind ourselves that the majority of Americans still choose to tune into a variety of news sources, listen to all sides, and try to understand the truth. They hold the balance of hope for American democracy in their hands.

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