“His baggage is too heavy, too controversial,” says Rasmussen, 70, who served as Denmark’s prime minister for most of the first decade of this century.
Yet Rasmussen, a center-right politician turned international white-shoe consultant, is still afraid of Trump. What bothers him more immediately than the idea of Trump returning to the White House is a much more likely scenario: Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination.
It may seem counterintuitive to fear Trump’s nomination more than his return to power, a less likely but far more dangerous outcome. But Rasmussen’s mind is on the war in Ukraine — and what Trump’s candidacy might do to sabotage it.
The former NATO chief is an adviser to the Ukrainian government and recently traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress and Biden administration officials. He is pressuring them to provide more and heavier weapons and to guarantee Ukraine’s long-term security.
This is where Trump’s angst comes in.
Just by winning the Republican nomination, Trump could break the bipartisan front in favor of Ukraine, Rasmussen fears. Trump has been outspoken about his views on invading Russia, praising Putin as a clever strategist in the early days of the war and recently suggesting that Ukraine should have handed over “Russian-speaking areas” as part of an agreement with the invader.
Rasmussen says Trump’s apparent Ukraine policy would amount to a “surrender”.
“I call it a geopolitical catastrophe if Trump were to be nominated, because in the campaign his influence would be destructive,” Rasmussen said. It would bring Trump’s terrible ideas closer to the mainstream and make it harder to win Congressional support for the war.
Already, he notes, opinion polls show “weakening support for Ukraine” in the United States. Trump’s nomination could hasten that, Rasmussen argues: “The mere fact that his thinking appeals to a certain element, a certain segment of the American public, will push American policy in the wrong direction.”
“I really hope the Republicans pull themselves together,” he said. “I would hope, I would say not just from a European perspective but from a global perspective, that the Republicans nominate a candidate who is much more committed to American global leadership than Trump and the Trumpists.”
There are only a few candidates circling the Republican race who fit that description. Perhaps most promising is Mike Pence, the former vice president who has called for massive aid to Ukraine and exposed Russia’s “apologists” in his own party. Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador, has endorsed giving Ukraine all the weaponry it needs and describes the war as a fight for freedom. Nor are the polls in double digits right now.
Trump’s main rival on the right, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, echoed him on Ukraine, decrying what he calls Biden’s generous aid “blank check policy” and saying the plight of Ukraine’s border regions is not a major American concern. This week he called Russia’s savage war of aggression a “territorial dispute”.
This “blank check” language has become go-to phrasing for Republicans (including Haley at times) who want to keep some distance from the war without becoming a full-fledged Trump. The slogan relates to the extent of the Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthythe position. When he declined an invitation to Ukraine this month from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, McCarthy said he didn’t need to travel to confirm he ‘won’t provide a blank check for anything’ .
We don’t know what this means in terms of politics, which is not really reassuring for Ukraine and its allies.
It’s not that the Republican Party lacks committed defenders of Ukraine. There are many, but as the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell they tend to speak softly and carry a big omnibus spending bill. An inflexible Ukrainian hawk, McConnell assured European leaders at the Munich security conference last month that Republican leaders valued a “robust transatlantic alliance” — whatever other hoarse voices from the podium might say. .
“Don’t look at Twitter – look at the people in power,” McConnell told them, listing influential House and Senate committee chairs who have locked arms with Ukraine.
The problem is that there is little in the last decade of Republican politics to indicate that top legislators can be counted on to stick to their principles when the more strident factions of the base of the GOP are moving in another direction. And when it comes to war, right-wing Twitter bears an uncomfortable resemblance to real life.
There is a pronounced partisan divide on Ukraine: A Gallup poll released in February, around the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, found that 81% of Democrats wanted Ukraine to reclaim its lost land even in risks prolonging the war, against 53% of Republicans. . Only 10% of Democrats thought the US was doing too much to support Ukraine, while nearly half of Republicans thought US support had gone too far.
These are the consequences of letting the likes of Trump and Tucker Carlson, the Fox News personality who is America’s most caustic antagonist of the Ukrainian government, become the loudest right-wing voices on today’s most pressing security issue. .
Perhaps that is why Rasmussen and some other center-right foreign leaders have taken it upon themselves to make the case for the American right for war.
Most visible has been Britain’s Boris Johnson, the former Conservative prime minister who is lobbying governments on both sides of the Atlantic to supply fighter jets to Ukraine. In late January, he was enthusiastically received by Republicans on Capitol Hill, with more suspicion of his disheveled Mr. Brexit persona than his stubborn pro-Ukrainian activism.
At an Atlantic Council event, Johnson lamented the declining spirit of American conservatives. “I’ve been amazed and horrified by how many people are scared of a guy called Tucker Carlson,” Johnson said. A lethally effective provocateur can spot another.
Rasmussen has made three trips to Washington since last fall, using each to make the case for Ukraine and promote a plan for Western security guarantees. He says he has met a number of influential Republicans, including senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — all avowed supporters of the fight against Russia.
True Ukrainian skeptics have been more elusive. I ask Rasmussen if he has encountered war critics like the senator Josh Haleythe Missouri Republican who called the war a distraction from a larger struggle with China, or the senator JD Vance from Ohio, a newcomer to Washington who, as a candidate last year, professed indifference to the Ukrainian cause. The answer is a sad no.
Rasmussen tells me that before going to Washington, he compiled a list of lawmakers who had been critical of the war and requested meetings with some of them. He was prepared to tell them that ensuring Russia’s failure in Ukraine was not a distraction from competition with China, but rather a crucial opportunity for the West to show its collective might and resolve. He wanted to explain how European governments are doing their part against the Russian threat and to point out that “isolationism has never, ever served the interests of the United States”.
Not one war critic agreed to meet him, he said. Unfortunately for me, Rasmussen refuses to “name and shame” the specific members who fired him.
Rasmussen says he tries to get on Fox whenever he’s in the United States, although he hasn’t been able to get on the air in months. When I ask him if he tried to get on Carlson’s show, he laughs, “Not Tucker Carlson.”
Even a war effort may be asking too much.
If American voters’ enthusiasm for war can’t last forever, then Rasmussen thinks we need to make it count now. That means giving Ukraine fighter jets, longer-range missiles and other weapons that Biden has resisted sending. If Trump’s opponents can’t beat him in the primaries, Rasmussen hopes Ukraine may be able to defeat Russia first. He predicts that Biden will eventually send warplanes, calling it simply a “matter of time.”
The former NATO boss has nothing critical to say about Biden. When I suggest the president could do more to explain the war to American voters and address their skepticism, he dismisses the idea. Biden is the best thing the transatlantic alliance has done.
“We are blessed,” Rasmussen said, “to have a true internationalist and globalist in the White House.”