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Trump and his allies are wielding immigration as a political weapon against Biden, and Ukraine is paying the price

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Big League Dreams Las Vegas on January 27, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Big League Dreams Las Vegas on January 27, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.David Becker/Getty Images
  • Negotiations on a deal on the border and aid could collapse thanks to Trump.

  • He put pressure on the bipartisan deal he called "meaningless," leaving Republicans scrambling on what's next.

  • The chaos hurts Ukraine in particular, as its troops fight Russia without new US aid.

Republicans and Democrats have spent weeks carefully negotiating a massive, bipartisan immigration and foreign aid deal, leaving Ukraine in a wait-and-see position on critical support.

As both sides moved closer toward a possible agreement, former President Donald Trump stepped in to torpedo attempts at a compromise.

His opposition to the deal, which some have said may be in hopes of keeping the border as a key campaign issue going into the election this year, has left some Republicans wary of crossing him and others frustrated.

Failure to reach a deal is likely to leave multiple parties feeling aggrieved, but it would especially hurt Ukraine. Its troops are scraping the bottom of the barrel for ammunition to defend themselves and their cities against intensifying assaults, and the country is increasingly nervous about fighting off Russia with little help from its biggest single supporter in the West.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week in a closed-door meeting with other Republicans that Trump's pushback against the border deal had forced them into a pickle. The comments were first reported by Punchbowl News.

"When we started this, the border united us and Ukraine divided us," McConnell said. "The politics on this have changed."

"We don't want to do anything to undermine him," McConnell added, talking about Trump as the former president moves closer to clinching the Republican presidential nomination after successes in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month.

The next day, at another closed-door meeting, McConnell said that his comments had been misinterpreted and that he was committed to getting the deal passed.

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President Donald Trump watches a video of President Joe Biden playing during a rally for Sen. Marco Rubio at the Miami-Dade Country Fair and Exposition on November 6, 2022, in Miami, Florida.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trump's opposition to the bill comes as he campaigns on fixing the border crisis. Last week, he called the deal "meaningless" and asserted that the "ONLY HOPE" for a secure border is voting for him.

Senator Mitt Romney slammed Trump's response, saying, "I think the border is a very important issue for Donald Trump. And the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and congresspeople that he doesn't want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is … really appalling."

"But the reality is that, that we have a crisis at the border, the American people are suffering as a result of what's happening at the border, he said, noting that someone running for president should want to solve the problem as opposed to saying, 'Hey, save that problem. Don't solve it. Let me take credit for solving it later.'"

Other Republicans, like Senator Todd Young, have suggested Trump is purposefully disrupting negotiations for his campaign. One Republican Senator told CNN on background: "This proposal would have had almost unanimous Republican support if it weren't for Donald Trump."

At a Las Vegas rally on Saturday, Trump doubled-down on his message. "As leader of our party, there is zero chance I will support this horrible open borders betrayal of America," Trump said. "I'll fight it all the way. A lot of the senators are trying to say, respectfully, they're blaming it on me. I say, that's OK. Please blame it on me. Please."

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Former President Donald Trump grins as he signs an autograph after a rally in New Hampshire a day before winning the state's primary.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Despite the border deal being notably to the right of the Biden administration's stances on immigration, the bipartisan bill could be a win for Biden ahead of the election. Immigration is a top concern for many voters going into November, a potentially jeopardizing problem for Democrats amid spikes in migrant encounters, and a marquee issue for Trump to campaign on.

Both Republicans and Democrats have said they've been painstakingly negotiating this deal, which is focused on foreign aid but includes compromises on the border, for weeks, and Biden has shown clear desire to sign it.

In October 2023, Biden originally requested a roughly $111 billion aid package for both Ukraine and Israel. Republicans in Congress blocked it, hoping to force Democrats to agree to stricter immigration and border control policies.

At first, it appeared to result in a stalemate between the two sides, but Biden publicly signaled in December that he was willing to "make significant compromises on the border." This move ultimately prompted careful discussions on a deal that would meet GOP negotiators' demands on immigration, while still giving Biden a win.

The deal would also have been a win for Ukraine, which relies on Western security assistance to fuel its war efforts.

But now, as House Speaker Mike Johnson wrote Friday, it appears the deal may be dead before it's even finished. According to Johnson, "the Senate appears unable to reach any agreement. If rumors about the contents of the draft proposal are true, it would have been dead on arrival in the House anyway."

But Johnson could also be buckling under the weight of political pressure from Trump's allies in the House. Earlier this month, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene said she wouldn't support any deal and threatened Johnson with a motion to vacate him from the Speaker position if he brought the deal to the House floor. It's unclear whether such a move would have enough support and what role House Democrats would play, but there's a risk.

The looming question here is whether Republicans want to do anything to make progress on their issues with immigration and the US border with Mexico at all, or if they hope to continue to weaponize it against Biden and Democrats into the 2024 election. As Texas Governor Greg Abbott showed last week in defying the Supreme Court's decision to remove the razor wire installed in the Rio Grande, tensions around the issue may only continue to get worse.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Warsaw, Poland, on April 5, 2023.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Warsaw, Poland, on April 5, 2023.Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The biggest loser in all of this though is probably Ukraine, which has been pleading for more US aid for months.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with US lawmakers back in December in Washington, DC to advocate for more aid, warning that Russian aggression would only increase should Ukraine fall, further endangering other nations, including NATO.

Further Russian aggression could demand more aid and assistance from the US, which would further strain America's already depleted ammunition and weapons stockpiles.

Earlier this month, Zelenskyy said that some "radical voices from the Republican Party," which have politicized aid for Ukraine, "are straining Ukrainian society" and leaving his people terrified. He appeared to be referring to a contingent of GOP lawmakers who have loudly denounced future US support for Ukraine. The US is by far the largest single contributor of security assistance to Ukraine.

The reality for Ukraine right now on the battlefield is a perilous one. Russian forces are conducting offensive operations along multiple sectors of the front, forcing Ukraine to fight on defense.

Ukraine likely doesn't have the resources, particularly ammunition, to launch an offensive anytime soon, but with adequate support, it could hold off Russian forces and prepare for the possibility of new operational opportunities later. Without that support though, it is in for a tough defensive fight, which one expert has said it may not be able to survive.

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