Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February of 2022. A year-and-a-half later, the fate of the brutal conflict is still top of mind in Washington and beyond.
Joe Biden recently embarked on a high-profile visit to Europe for a Nato summit, where he opined on the future of the alliance and Ukraine’s potential place in it. This shift may even have reached the GOP, which took something of an isolationist turn under Donald Trump. However, these days, the Ukraine war seems to be a central topic once again.
That renewed focus was on full display on Friday at an event hosted by Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News anchor.
Despite no longer holding the top perch in cable news, he retained his kingmaking position, hosting the first Republican presidential forum on Friday in Iowa, at an event co-organised by the conservative groups Family Leader and Blaze Media.
Six GOP candidates looking to obtain the coveted Republican National Committee (RNC) nomination joined Carlson on stage for a 25-minute one-on-one conversation: Tim Scott, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis.
Notably missing from the forum was former president Donald Trump who was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.
Once onstage, international affairs were a key sticking point.
Ron DeSantis, seen as the most potent rival to Trump, warned that US support for the Ukraine war effort could turn into a “quagmire” like the US wars in the Middle East.
“My critique of the DC foreign policy elite is that they are doing a black check policy without telling us when we will have achieved our objective,” he said.
“I wish the DC elites cared as much about our border,” he added. “There are people pouring into this country. We have people dying of fentanyl overdose. The cartels are running the show.”
The Florida governor said he would finish Donald Trump’s border wall, declare a national emergency at the border, and deploy the US military to kill drug cartel members.
The forum comes more than a month before the RNC’s first official debate on 23 August, and Mr DeSantis’s fellow candidates had similar issues on their minds.
Mr Scott preached about “the wall” needing to be built along the US-Mexico border and agreed with Carlson that Mexico posed a larger threat to Americans than Russia.
While remarks from candidates like Mr DeSantis were met with praise from Carlson, there were some moments of tension.
The former Fox anchor lashed out at former vice-president Pence for his statements supporting further military aid to Ukraine.
Carlson claimed that “public filth and disorder and crime” were skyrocketing in America, so Mr Pence shouldn’t put so much emphasis on Ukraine, a country “most people can’t find on a map.”
“Every city in America has become much worse over the past three years … Where’s the concern for the United States?” the host asked.
The former vice-president brushed off the criticism, calling it a “routine” from Carlson, and said he’s running for president because “this country is in a lot of trouble.”
Nonetheless, it was clear Mr Pence may have been something of an outlier at the conservative gathering. You could almost hear crickets when tried to get the audience on his side that Russia’s weakening military position in Ukraine was a good thing.
“A year and half ago Russia had the second most powerful military in the world. Today they have the second most powerul military in Ukraine,” he said, to a weak smattering of applause, before doubling down: “That’s progress.”
That wasn’t the only testy exchange.
Former Arkansas governor Mr Hutchinson clashed slightly with Carlson when confronted about cultural issues like transgender rights and Covid-19 vaccines.
Carlson pressed the former governor about his decision to veto a 2021 bill that would’ve made Arkansas the first state to ban gender-confirming treatments or surgery for trans youth. The ex-Fox News host seemed dissatisfied with Mr Hutchinson’s justification to allow parents to decide their children’s medical needs.
The conversation at the event also drifted back to the January 6 Capitol riot.
Carlson began his discussion with Mr Pence about January 6th with questions that downplayed the severity of it and seemingly justified the rioters in their attack.
The former vice president reflected on the day with restraint, calling it “tragic” and condemning Trump’s “reckless” words that led him and his family to become endangered.
But Carlson pushed back slightly on Mr Pence, suggesting that rioters were angry because the 2020 election was fraudulent – a lie peddled by Mr Trump.
While serving as a host for Fox News, Mr Carlson aired cherry-picked footage of the insurrection and crafted a narrative claiming the insurrection was not deadly and, instead, was a peaceful protest that media and lawmakers lied about to the public.
Mr Pence asserted his confidence that the 2020 election was done fairly.
The former South Carolina governor, meanwhile, Ms Haley emphasised the importance of election integrity and advocated for a better healthcare system focusing on mental health.
Entrepreneur Mr Ramaswamy shared his optimistic view of the US as the youngest candidate running for president. During his conversation, he told Carlson he believes January 6th was caused by censorship.
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