Donald Trump’s hearty endorsement of pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September has undercut efforts by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other key Republicans to question President Biden’s strategy.
More broadly, the former president has focused the nation’s attention on China as the United States’s premier national security concern, putting pressure on Senate Republicans to support legislation Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to move to respond to Beijing’s growing influence and power.
McConnell is the most powerful Republican leader in Washington, but he doesn’t have the same unrivaled platform that he did when he was in the same position – head of the minority opposition in Washington – at the start of former President Obama’s tenure.
McConnell has seized on Biden’s announcement that he will withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan as a prime example of him talking like a centrist but governing from the left.
The GOP leader has warned that Biden has ordered “a hasty total withdrawal from Afghanistan” that will “leave coalition partners and vulnerable Afghans high and dry.”
Al Cross, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics, said McConnell is trying to set it up so that he can pounce on Biden if militant extremists seize full control of Afghanistan or if terrorist groups use it again as a base to launch attacks against the United States.
“He’s setting a marker to say ‘I told you so’ when Afghanistan goes to hell,” he said. “He makes these little down payments on political investments that may turn out or may not.”
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), McConnell’s potential successor, says Biden’s decision is “a big mistake” and “not the right move.”
“I know there’s a lot of pressure from the left in this country to get out of Afghanistan, but we have a lot invested there over a long period of time and the one thing we don’t want to do is create the conditions there that are favorable for terrorist organizations to train and prepare and plan attacks against the United States,” he said in an interview with podcast host David Brody.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), another member of McConnell’s leadership circle who could be Senate GOP leader someday, has also criticized Biden’s decision, warning Afghanistan’s security situation could deteriorate quickly.
“It’s not very encouraging. It sounds to me like the Taliban has the upper hand and the challenge is going to be to continue to remember the lesson of 9/11, that a power vacuum gets filled by the bad guys,” he said after senators received a briefing on Biden’s decision. “It’s hard to know exactly what the plan is. It sounds like it’s going to be, ‘Hope for the best.’ “
But Trump has undercut the messaging from Senate Republican leaders, opening the way for other Republicans to express support for Biden’s decision or at least publicly question the wisdom of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the fall.
John Ullyot, the National Security Council spokesman under Trump, told The Hill, “President Trump did a great job drawing down our forces against resistance from the Pentagon, especially in the last year. All our troops would indeed be home by now if he were president. His support for Biden’s move to get us out will bring along many Republicans who have not staked out the opposite position publicly.”
Trump wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May 1 and praised the prospect as “a wonderful and positive thing to do.”
That gives more political cover for other Republicans to break with their leadership.
McConnell’s leadership on the issue has also been undercut by Trump’s calls for Senate Republicans to oust him as their leader, something the former president reiterated Thursday.
GOP strategists say the base is with Trump, not McConnell, which gives other Republicans incentive to follow his lead, especially if they are looking to run for the White House in 2024 if Trump forgoes the race.
“The grassroots are with Trump on this so therefore the party is with Trump on this issue,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.
He said, however, that McConnell is playing the traditional Republican role of pushing a muscular national security stance, adding, “Republicans have traditionally been stronger on it than Democrats.”
“Unfortunately, McConnell is not seeing the larger picture, which is any time we’re not focused on China, we’re losing,” O’Connell said. “The biggest threat in the 21st century to America and all of humanity is China, and anytime you’re hanging around the Middle East for more than 20 years, you’re not focused on China.”
Policy experts and operatives say Trump has helped transform political views of China, making the threat posed by the emerging superpower more important to Republican voters. This ups the ante on Senate Republicans to agree to support legislation – which is expected to be bipartisan – to respond to growing competition from China whenever Schumer brings it to the floor.
Other Republicans are shifting their focus away from Afghanistan and to China.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a potential White House 2024 hopeful, said he’s “glad the troops are coming home,” while Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), another Republican with presidential ambitions, tweeted last month: “It’s time for this forever war to end.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), an influential moderate voice, said, “I have always thought that there will be a time” to leave Afghanistan “because we cannot, we cannot be a nation of indefinite wars.”
“That should not be the United States of America,” she said, though she also raised concerns about announcing a hard-and-fast exit date when the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain.
Other Republicans say they think the Biden administration can guard against Afghanistan becoming an incubator of international terrorist organizations like it was for al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks.
“I look forward to working with the current Administration to continue our intelligence gathering efforts and preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a home base,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said last month, adding: “I am pleased our troops are coming home.”
One key Republican caught in the middle is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who would likely become Speaker if Republicans take back the House in 2022 and who is working with Trump on midterm election strategy.
McCarthy said in August 2017 that the U.S. “can’t allow a safe haven for terrorists to materialize again” and that “a secure, stable Afghanistan is vital to U.S. national security.”
In recent weeks, he has kept a low profile on Biden’s decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan, instead hitting him on other issues in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity after the president’s address to a joint session of Congress last week.
Instead, he has let House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.) take the lead on criticizing Biden’s Afghanistan decision.
Cheney says it’s a “huge propaganda victory” for the Taliban and al Qaeda and “puts American security at risk.”
But Cheney’s message has been blunted by Trump’s forceful counters.
“This warmongering fool wants to stay in the Middle East and Afghanistan for another 19 years, but doesn’t consider the big picture-Russia and China!” Trump said last week in a statement issued by his leadership PAC.
Trump has lashed out against Cheney since she voted to convict him on an article of impeachment for inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6.