GOP senators push back on DeSantis for saying Ukraine isn’t vital interest

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WASHINGTON — Republican senators broke with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday over his remarks that defending Ukraine against Russian aggression wasn’t a “vital” U.S. interest.

“I completely disagree with his comments,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.

About a half-dozen of Wicker’s GOP colleagues voiced varying degrees of opposition to DeSantis’ remarks Monday night on Fox News.

The high-profile comments by DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential hopeful who many GOP elites expect to be the main alternative to former President Donald Trump, intensify a clash within the party between security hawks who want to preserve the post-World War II order and a right-wing populist wing seeking to pull back from global affairs.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told NBC News: “I’d certainly hate to send a signal to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin that we’re not concerned about him, and I’d certainly hate to send a signal to other allies around the world that you’re on your own. Because that could lead to a nuclear proliferation that we’ve been avoiding for decades. So no, I do think it’s in our interest.”

Cramer, who otherwise praised DeSantis, said he’s “not super surprised” by the remarks, as DeSantis is navigating a complicated dynamic with the party base.

“We have a base that’s restless, and if he’s running for president, he probably needs to speak to that base a little bit,” Cramer said. “And that’s not to say it’s not his position, but I do think if he is the president of the United States and he has all that power, then hopefully he’s adequately briefed on the details to make the decision. But I also hope that this position evolves a little bit.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, rejected DeSantis’ view that Russia’s war in Ukraine was a “territorial dispute” between two sides.

“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,” Rubio told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “Just because someone claims something doesn’t mean it belongs to them. This is an invasion.”

Rubio added: “I don’t know what he’s trying to do or what the goal is. Obviously, he doesn’t deal with foreign policy every day as governor.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said DeSantis’ comments reflected a “misunderstanding of the situation.”

“This is not a territorial conflict. This is a war of aggression,” he said, adding that DeSantis has been “a great governor, but in my opinion, if you don’t get Ukraine right, this is a chance to stop Putin before it gets to be a bigger war — and China’s watching.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said “I have a different view on that than he does” when he was pressed about DeSantis. “There’s a diversity of opinion, as you know, within members of our party.”

Numerous Republicans said protecting Ukraine was ultimately about protecting the U.S. and its allies in Europe.

“They’re a vital interest,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. “We’re basically protecting NATO and Europe.” But he said there’s a valid debate about how far the U.S. can go in terms of helping Ukraine. “We’re broke,” he said. “We’ve got to have a better plan.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said: “I don’t want America to be the world’s policeman, but I don’t want Vladimir Putin or [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to be the world’s policemen, either. I’ve never looked at our Ukraine assistance as charity. I’ve looked at it as self-preservation.”

Other Republicans said the issue will spark a debate in the primaries.

“It’s something that I think any one of the individuals who has an interest in working as the next president of the United States really needs to get a full briefing before they decide to make up their minds on this particular issue,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told reporters.

“So we’ll see how it moves. But we’ve got a number of individuals who are looking, I think, at the 2024 race, and we’ll find out whether or not the rest of them feel the same way.”

Kate Santaliz contributed.

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