Once belittled by then-President Trump as a “third-rate grandstander,” Rep. Thomas Massie is used to tilting at political windmills.
In early March, the Kentucky Republican was one of just three lawmakers to oppose the first piece of legislation designed to show U.S. support for Ukraine in its war against an invading Russian army, a familiar lonely spot for the libertarian-leaning lawmaker frequently at odds with his party’s leaders.
But on Monday, Massie spoke to Trump for the first time in more than two years — and received the former president’s endorsement in the May 17 Kentucky primary. And on Tuesday, 56 Republicans joined Massie in opposing the latest push to send arms to the Ukrainian forces.
“It’s growing by the week,” he told reporters in an impromptu 20-minute conversation off the House floor Friday. He suggested the price tag so far was “insane” and that sanctions against Moscow only increase inflation. “More and more people are agreeing with that.”
Massie, 51, is the only member of the House to hold a perfect 16-for-16 record opposing legislation to support Ukraine and oppose Russia, according to House records and a Democratic analysis provided to The Washington Post.
It was easy to brush Massie aside in early March when he opposed a simple, nonbinding resolution declaring American support for Ukraine and demanding Russian President Vladimir Putin call a cease fire. Or in late April, when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was the only other Republican to oppose a bill to protect religious freedoms in Ukraine.
Little by little, however, with each proposal, a few more Republicans would sign up: eight Republicans opposed suspending trade privileges for Russia in mid-March; 17 Republicans opposed a resolution supporting Moldova, whose leaders fear their Ukraine-bordering nation could be Putin’s next target; 19 opposed a similar resolution in support for Georgia.
Then, on April 27, 55 House Republicans opposed legislation to build secure telecommunications networks in Ukraine and neighboring nations. Finally, on Tuesday,, 57 Republicans opposed President Biden’s request for $40 billion in weapons and humanitarian aid, with some saying the legislation had been rushed to the floor without detailed consideration. All Democrats backed the president’s request.
Massie saw it as a defining moment.
“This is the real story. Not that there’s 57 Republicans who’ve woken up to the folly of what we’re doing in Ukraine, but that there are zero Democrats. Every single one of them is on the wrong side of this,” he said.
His views remain a minority, but his allies in this cause include some of the closest allies to Trump, who is strongly considering another run for president and has espoused his own fondness for Putin.
Greene, who frequently appears as a warm-up act for Trump rallies, has opposed 15 of the 16 measures related to Ukraine. Arizona GOP Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul A. Gosar — who supported efforts to try to block President Biden’s certification of victory in the 2020 campaign — have voted against 11 and 10 of the Ukraine-related bills, respectively.
These Republicans sum up their world view in blunt, nationalist terms. “Let me ask you,” Greene said during an interview Thursday. “Has Vladimir Putin stopped his war in Ukraine because of all these sanctions? No, not at all. It hasn’t done anything. So, you know what? I care about our country, United States of America and our people. That’s it.”
Greene, a freshman with no background in foreign policy, often uses fiery terms that do not fully grasp the geopolitical issue at hand. “Baby formula, baby formula, people cannot find baby formula, with such a shortage. But our Congress is going to send $40 billion to some other country,” she said.
But Massie — an engineer who graduated with several degrees from M.I.T. and became an inventor who still holds a number of patents — has devoted time and energy to honing his America First views during five terms in the House.
“I’m further, I think, than he is on the issue of NATO. He demanded that the partners pay their share. I would withdraw us from NATO,” Massie explained of his and Trump’s views toward the critical alliance. “It’s a Cold War relic. Our involvement should have ceased when the [Berlin] wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed.”
He would have preemptively surrendered portions of eastern Ukraine to Russia in a manner that would have “avoided tens of thousands of people dying,” because this is how he sees the war ending anyway.
“A fractured Ukraine, with the Eastern portion of it being a satellite or more government, more deferential to Putin, and the Western part of it more deferential to Europe or the United States,” Massie said.
These views are anathema to traditional Republican hawks as well as Democrats in line with Biden, who push for a vigorous foreign policy that works to unify allies, particularly in Europe.
“Both Democrats and Republicans have at different times in history had a more isolationist, nativist wing,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Right now, it’s the Republicans who are highest on that. They’re playing a very isolationist card.”
“Honestly there is an isolationist wing within the party that’s traditionally been there,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Smith takes a more optimistic outlook, focusing on how more than 70 percent of House Republicans supported the latest Ukraine aid package and that on other votes, Massie and Greene have had few allies.
“Pretty much everybody else understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine. It is about our security and peace and stability in the world. So thus far the Republican Party is still there,” Smith said.
McCaul has actually been pleasantly surprised that the anti-Ukraine faction has not grown larger, something he attributes to the success on the ground of Ukrainian troops and the atrocities committed by Putin’s troops.
“I was really worried, interestingly, earlier on about how this was going to trend,” McCaul said Friday.
He understands that this could turn into a long-term commitment and worries that later this year, when almost inevitably Biden will ask Congress for another war supplemental bill, support will drop among Republicans.
“I still think there’s very strong support, but it is something we’re keeping an eye on as we look at the next supplemental,” McCaul said. “What’s going to be the appetite for that?”
Smith does worry about the nativist wing’s influence with Trump if he runs for president in 2024. “If Trump is the leader of their party, that’s a huge problem,” he said.
Before Monday’s call, Massie said he last spoke to Trump on March 27, 2020, just off the floor of the House as the then-president screamed at him to allow the chamber to unanimously approve the more than $2 trillion Cares Act to combat the early days of the pandemic.
Massie objected to a simple unanimous consent — which would have allowed all but a few members to safely stay home and pass the massive bill without an actual vote. Instead, about 250 lawmakers showed up and gave their vocal support, a bipartisan victory that prompted Trump to call for Massie to be expelled from the GOP.
He went on to win reelection without Trump, and by Monday, Trump reached out to Massie.
“A glorious phone call,” Massie said.
They did not talk about foreign policy, or Massie’s votes to certify Biden’s victory. They did not discuss Massie’s March 2020 actions. They did talk about how Trump’s uncle taught at M.I.T. for several decades.
Afterward, Trump issued a public statement declaring Massie a “first-rate” defender of his policies, back in his good graces.