Politics

The Pressure Campaign on Biden

Republicans—and some Democrats—have settled into a convenient posture of insisting the president is always a step short of appropriately assisting Ukraine.

Zelensky's face is seen on a large screen displayed above a stage in a large auditorium with an audience.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the U.S. Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces on Wednesday. J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/Getty Images

The virtual address Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made to Congress on Wednesday motivated many members to want to offer more help. But perhaps no one was more fired up than Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“I hope he’ll be taken out, one way or the other” Graham said, reiterating his tweet from two weeks ago calling for someone in Vladimir Putin’s circle to assassinate him. “I don’t care how they take him out.”

A couple of hours after the speech, Graham was holding his own press conference to discuss a resolution he’d put together calling on President Joe Biden to get more fighter jets and air defense systems to Ukraine.

Advertisement

Rarely does a foreign conflict go by to which the hawkish senator doesn’t want to send maximum weaponry—but in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that includes weapons Graham hadn’t heard of.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“I don’t know what a switchblade drone is,” he said, “but it sounds like it should be going to Ukraine.”

The Biden administration announced later that afternoon that it was sending 100 switchblade drones, and hundreds of millions of dollars in additional weaponry, to Ukraine. But for Graham and other Republicans—and some Democrats—in Congress, it wasn’t nearly enough. The conversation had moved onto the next thing: sending fighter jets from Poland, the transfer of which the Pentagon quashed after deeming it too escalatory.

Advertisement

To be sure, Zelensky’s speech, in which he called on Biden “to be the leader of the world” and “to be the leader of peace,” moved members of Congress of all stripes. As they filed out of the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium where they watched the speech, members could be overheard talking about weapons and what else could be done.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a veteran, fought back tears and told reporters it made her “want to throw on my uniform, you know, and go help.” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said it was “very emotional, powerful” and “fully convincing that we have a responsibility to help defend freedom.” (He added: “and can do so by providing anti-aircraft systems as well as MiGs, which they very badly need and deserve.”)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“He has not only the eloquence, but he demonstrated courage: He’s there in the middle of the war,” Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told me afterward, about Zelensky. He then added, a little more cautiously: “And I think what he’s asking for is all we can do to help him, and we should do that, but we should do it in a way that truly helps him and also curtails any further conflict in the region.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

But it’s somewhat surprising to hear Republicans, who just a couple of years ago were defending President Donald Trump against charges that he was holding up military aid for Zelensky in exchange for dirt on the Biden family, now look at Zelensky with a sort of jealousy—and as a foil against which to play their criticism of weak worrywart Joe Biden.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“President Biden needs to step up his game, right now, before it’s too late,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after the speech. “I think comparing Zelensky to Biden is depressing.”

That might sound harsh, but it was nothing compared with what the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, told Politico following the speech: “I just hope it moves that senile devil we got in the White House.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, told reporters he was open to the Biden administration doing more and wasn’t, for example, “100 percent convinced that the transfer of the planes is unacceptably escalatory.” But he was getting peeved that there’s an open debate in Congress, every day, about which specific battlefield tactic should be used against Ukraine.

Advertisement

“There’s some level of war strategy that is better off inside the administration,” he said. “For us to be sort of telegraphing Russia every single day our divisions over what kind of defensive support Ukraine should get—and telegraphing them exactly what weapons systems we’re transferring—I don’t know is helpful.

“I have a basic level of trust that this administration, which sees all the pieces in a way Congress cannot, is making the right decisions,” he added.

That’s the rub. Senators and members of Congress have been getting regular briefings from the administration. But when Lindsey Graham says “this is a bluff” when Putin makes nuclear threats over escalatory moves from NATO, how does he know that? When Joni Ernst does a mocking “Oh, it’s too escalatory” impression of the administration’s response to transferring MiGs, is she certain that it’s not? Are these senators manning the hotline between Moscow and Washington?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

This pressure campaign on Biden to go one step further—at any given time—has often appeared to work when it comes to Ukraine, whether it’s about removing certain Russian banks from the SWIFT financial system or imposing a ban on Russian energy. The administration, now, is working to get the S-300 missile defense systems that Zelensky requested in his Wednesday speech into Ukrainian hands. And maybe those 28 Polish MiGs will find their way across the Ukrainian border.

If all of that comes to pass, what will be the new step that “senile devil” Biden is too “weak” to take? What is the next ask that the Republicans will consider a useful cudgel against the administration, and that the White House press corps will continue to pester Jen Psaki about? Lindsey Graham may not know what it is yet. But he knows the White House needs to do it.

Advertisement