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Should the U.S. Keep Funding War in Ukraine? Debate Reveals Deep Divisions Within Republican Party

StoryAugust 24, 2023
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The first Republican presidential primary debate highlighted “deep divisions within the Republican Party about foreign policy,” says The Nation's national affairs correspondent John Nichols. He says the nationalist “America First” ideology championed by former President Donald Trump is now being pushed even further by Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis, who are critical of U.S. funding to Ukraine, while more establishment candidates like Nikki Haley insisted on continued support for the country's defense against Russia.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Republican candidates were also asked about the war in Ukraine. This is debate moderator Bret Baier of Fox News.

BRET BAIER: Mr. Ramaswamy, you would not support an increase of funding to Ukraine?

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: I would not. And I think that this is disastrous that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border, when we should use those same military resources to prevent across the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States. We are driving Russia further into China’s hands. The Russia-China alliance is the single greatest threat we face. And I find it offensive that we have professional politicians on the stage that will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelensky, without doing the same thing for people in Maui or the South Side of Chicago —

MIKE PENCE: OK. All right, Bret, I’m in.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: — or Kensington. I think —

BRET BAIER: Hold on.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: — that we have to put the interests —


VIVEK RAMASWAMY: — of Americans first —

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Me, too. He was referring to me.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: — secure our own border instead of somebody else’s. …

NIKKI HALEY: A win for Russia is a win for China. We have to know that. Ukraine is the first line of defense for us. And the problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is, he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia. He wants to let China eat Taiwan. He wants to go and stop funding Israel. You don’t do —


NIKKI HALEY: — that to friends. What you do instead —


NIKKI HALEY: — is you have the backs of your friends. Ukraine is the frontline of defense. Putin has said, if Russia — once Russia takes Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next. That’s a world war. We’re trying to prevent war. Look at what Putin did today. He killed Prigozhin. When I was at the U.N., the Russian ambassador suddenly died. This guy is a murderer. And you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: I have to address that.

BRET BAIER: First of all —

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: First of all —

BRET BAIER: First of all, Mr. Ramaswamy, you have 30 seconds. Mr. DeSantis, Governor DeSantis, you’re next.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: You know, Nikki, I wish you well in your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon.

NIKKI HALEY: You know, I’m not on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: But the fact of the matter —

NIKKI HALEY: And, you know, you have put down —

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Boeing came off of it, but you’ve been pushing this lie.

NIKKI HALEY: — everybody on this stage.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: You’ve been pushing this lie all week, Nikki.

NIKKI HALEY: But do you know what? You want to go and defund Israel.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Yes. OK, let me address that.

NIKKI HALEY: You want to give Taiwan to China.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: I’m glad you brought that up.

NIKKI HALEY: You want to go and give Ukraine to Russia.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: I’m going to address each of those right now. This is —

NIKKI HALEY: You will make our —

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: — the false lies of a professional politician.

NIKKI HALEY: He will make America less safe.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: There you have it.

NIKKI HALEY: Under your watch, you will make America less safe.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: So, the reality is — 

NIKKI HALEY: You have no foreign policy —


NIKKI HALEY: — experience, and it shows. It shows.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: And you know what? There’s a foreign policy experience that you all have…

BRET BAIER: Governor DeSantis, you were mentioned in the territorial dispute. Not only —

NIKKI HALEY: No, it’s not a territorial dispute, either.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: So, as president of the United States, your first obligation is to defend our country and its people. And that means you’re sending all this money, but you’re not doing what we need to do to secure our own border. We have tens of thousands of people —

NIKKI HALEY: We can do both at the same time.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: — who are being killed because — well, we’re not handling both.

NIKKI HALEY: And we can do both at the same time.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: And so, I am going to declare it a national emergency. I’m not going to send troops to Ukraine, but I am going to send them to our southern border. When these drug pushers are bringing fentanyl across the border, that’s going to be the last thing they do. We’re going to use force, and we’re going to leave them stone cold dead.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Before that, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and also Vivek Ramaswamy. John Nichols, your response?

JOHN NICHOLS: It was a remarkable exchange. You could write books about that, just those few minutes there, and, in doing so, get a pretty good insight to where the Republican Party is. You clearly saw the “America First” position that Donald Trump obviously articulated in many cases as president, but even taken to greater extremes by Ramaswamy and, to a lesser extent, by DeSantis.

But what was fascinating in that exchange was the extent to which Nikki Haley really emerged as, I think, one of the most effective communicators on the stage, and one of the most aggressive communicators. She is nowhere near the others in the polls. She has got a long way to go. But she’s clearly doing a better job, frankly, than some of the other candidates who are attempting to distinguish themselves, in putting herself out there. And you saw the crowd’s reaction to her.

But what was fascinating was the extent to which Ramaswamy refused to back down. In fact, he actually, as you noted in that clip, suggested that Haley was really trying out for a place on the board of some defense contractor. It was a very aggressive hit, and one that I think was notable, because it gets to, I think, a lot of the deep divisions within the Republican Party about foreign policy. I wish that the moderators had really played this out a little more and given more time to a deeper investigation of this. And I think it’s especially notable that DeSantis was desperately trying to get into the discussion, but came in not with particularly deep insights, but just a repetition of talking points about the border.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, I want to thank you for being with us, The Nation's national affairs correspondent. We'll link to your latest piece, “The Party of the Big Lie, and the Even Bigger Lie,” this all on the eve of President Trump turning himself in. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks for joining us.

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