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Navalny death underlines GOP divisions in Trump era

The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is just the latest migraine for House GOP leaders as they seek a delicate balance between promoting democracy abroad and championing former President Trump, who opposes aid to Ukraine and recently suggested he would side with Moscow over some of America’s NATO allies.

The House left Washington last Thursday for a long President’s Day recess, which might have provided Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and his leadership team some breathing room as they weigh the decision of how — or if — to approve another round of military assistance for Kyiv.

But Navalny’s death — announced the next day — quickly dominated the weekend news cycle, highlighting not only the Republicans’ refusal to consider a Senate-passed Ukraine aid bill, but also the broader battle within the GOP over the global role of the United States in the era of Trump’s “America First” agenda.

Those issues were under the microscope in Munich over the weekend, where a who’s who of global figures — including many Capitol Hill lawmakers and Navalny’s widow — were gathered for an annual global security conference. Amid that debate, some of Russia’s staunchest critics say that any Republicans siding with Trump in opposition to Ukraine aid are, by extension, abetting the despotic regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We have to take seriously the extent to which you have now got a Putin wing of the Republican Party,” former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a leading Trump critic, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

“The issue of this election cycle is making sure the Putin wing of the Republican Party does not take over the West Wing of the White House.”

Trump has long maintained a friendly relationship with Putin, famously siding with the Russian president over his own intelligence officials regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. And as the favored candidate to win the GOP presidential nomination this year, he recently suggested that the U.S. should not defend NATO allies from Russian aggression if those countries don’t maintain a certain threshold of military spending.

“No, I would not protect you,” Trump said during a campaign stop in South Carolina. “In fact, I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want.”

Trump’s response to Navalny’s death has raised only more questions about his relationship with Putin, past and future. After three days of silence, he issued a statement on Monday likening Navalny’s fight against Russian state corruption to his own travails with the U.S. legal system, where he faces 91 felony counts. He did not mention Putin.

“The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction. Open Borders, Rigged Elections, and Grossly Unfair Courtroom Decisions are DESTROYING AMERICA. WE ARE A NATION IN DECLINE, A FAILING NATION!”

Taken together, Trump’s comments have thrown the spotlight on an internal battle that’s simmered within the Republican Party for years, but bubbled over after his ascension to the White House in 2017.

On one side are veteran conservatives, like Cheney and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who are holdovers from an earlier era when Republicans were virtually united behind a muscular foreign policy designed to promote America’s national interests —  economic, security, and otherwise — around the globe.

On the other side are Trump and his staunchest allies, who, after years of costly war in Iraq and Afghanistan, are wary of the U.S. getting bogged down in another global conflict. Their isolationist approach, reminiscent of the national mood before World War II, prefers to focus national resources on internal domestic affairs, not least of all border security.

Even those in the first group have been forced to concede that the second is winning that fight  — at least for the moment.

“The declining support for Ukraine is almost certainly because our nominee for president doesn’t think it’s a good idea,” McConnell told The Wall Street Journal last week.

Russian officials maintain that the 47-year-old Navalny died of natural causes while incarcerated in a remote Siberian prison. But they’ve refused to release his body, and Navalny’s allies suspect something much more sinister, putting the blame squarely on Putin, the chief target of Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade.

“Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in,” President Biden told reporters Monday during a visit to Delaware. “It’s a reflection of who he is. And it just cannot be tolerated.”

Separately, Russia claimed Sunday that it had seized the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, marking its most significant advancement in nine months and heightening the warnings about Kyiv’s ability to sustain its resistance amid dwindling weapon supplies.

Biden, joined by Democrats and some Republicans, say the recent episodes should light a fire under Congress to pass another round of Ukraine aid as quickly as possible. But while the Senate had adopted a bipartisan bill earlier in the month providing $60 billion for Ukraine, Johnson has refused to take it up. Rather, he’s insisting that any new foreign aid be accompanied by tougher security measures on the U.S.-Mexico border — a demand of his right wing.

Johnson didn’t mince words in going after Putin over Navalny’s death, characterizing the Russian leader as “a vicious dictator” who is “likely directly responsible.” He also vowed to work with Western allies to counter Putin “with united opposition,” while working with Democrats on “the best path forward” to help Kyiv.

Yet Johnson is also treading carefully so as not to alienate Trump, who has been endorsed by well over half the House GOP conference even as his only remaining primary opponent, Nikki Haley, is attacking him for being “weak in the knees” on Putin following Navalny’s death. It’s a dynamic Democrats are hoping to exploit as they push the Speaker for a vote on the Senate bill.

“This bipartisan bill currently sits at the feet of Speaker Johnson, and Putin is watching,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sunday.

In a sign of potential progress, Biden on Monday offered to meet directly with Johnson on what that path might look like — “if he has anything to say,” Biden said. The offer was welcomed by Johnson’s office, which noted that the Speaker has been requesting such a meeting for weeks. It’s unclear when, or if, the gathering will happen.

Trump has opposed any new aid for Kyiv, and his campaign machine has recently turned its ire on the 22 senators who bucked the former president and voted in support of a $95 billion foreign-aid package.

In the House, the ramifications for defying Trump on Ukraine are no less explicit: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has already vowed to launch an effort to oust Johnson from the Speakership if he even brings a Ukraine bill to the floor.

It’s unclear if Greene would follow through, or if she would have the support to remove Johnson’s gavel. But some of Russia’s GOP critics say losing the Speakership would be a small price to pay to counter Putin’s violent brand of authoritarianism.

Cheney, for one, warned that history won’t be kind to him otherwise.

“He’s going to have to explain to future generations — to his kids, to his grandkids — whether or not he did what was right, whether or not he was a force for good and aided the cause of freedom,” she told CNN, “or whether he continued down this path of cowardice and doing what Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin want him to do.”

Alex Gangitano and Brett Samuels contributed.

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