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Munich Blues

Lawmakers Barnstorm Europe to Reassure Allies of U.S. Reliability

At the Munich Security Conference, members of Congress faced a new challenge—proving that a U.S. on the verge of returning to Trumpism could still be trusted.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vice President Kamala Harris hold a joint press conference during the 60th Munich Security Conference.
Ukrainian Presidency/Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vice President Kamala Harris hold a joint press conference during the 60th Munich Security Conference.

Last weekend, at the annual Munich Security Conference, dozens of members of Congress faced America’s antsiest allies as they gathered in the looming shadow of the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The conference was consumed by a recent tragic event—news of the death of Alexei Navalny, a vocal political opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a Russian prison. Adding to the heaviness of the occasion, conference attendees contended with the difficult-to-swallow news of Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. 

It was against this backdrop of European conflict—the likes of which have not been seen since World War II—that American lawmakers arrived to pursue a difficult endeavor: prove to the international community that, even amid an all-consuming internal political strife characterized by an immobilized and intransigent Congress, the United States is still a reliable diplomatic partner. This task would have seemed nigh unthinkable when Russia’s invasion began, as bipartisan legislators offered billions of dollars in support to Ukraine with little dissension.

It was a message that came with fresh complications, namely the failure to approve a national security supplemental that would have included billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, a bipartisan measure that passed in the Senate but ran into a brick wall of opposition in the House. Even though the vast majority of members at the conference were supportive of Ukraine, fully convincing European leaders of their commitment was an uphill battle.

“We can’t lie. We can’t sugarcoat the instability in the House,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who attended the conference. “We can express hope that the House will process Ukraine aid, but frankly, we cannot make promises. So it was an uncomfortable weekend.”

Meanwhile, the specter of the 2024 election also loomed over the event, as the likely Republican nominee, former President Donald Trump, has adopted an ever more isolationist stance, even encouraging Russia to invade NATO allies who he believes are not spending enough on defense.

“Obviously, we couldn’t reassure them completely with Trump speaking so dangerously—so irresponsibly,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator who led the bipartisan “McCain CODEL” to the conference, a co-delegation named in honor of the late Senator John McCain. However, he took a sunnier outlook on the effects of American presence at the conference, heartened by the confidence expressed by Republican colleagues present that Congress would act on aid to Ukraine.

“It mattered a lot to our various interlocutors to hear that from the Republican side, from senior and experienced legislators,” Whitehouse told me, adding that “the net effect of our CODEL was to provide considerable bipartisan reassurance.”

That reassurance was required not only for European allies as a whole but specifically for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy; Vice President Kamala Harris was also present at the event and held a press conference with the Ukrainian president, reassuring him of American commitments—but although she speaks for the White House, she does not represent the House of Representatives. 

Representative Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat who attended the conference, said that Zelenskiy had adopted an expression of resolve in a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Although Avdiivka was a loss for Ukraine, Sherrill—a Navy veteran—said that Zelenskiy was a living example of the old Navy slogan: “I’m going to find a way, or make one.”

“Zelenskiy sat there before us knowing how difficult these negotiations in the House are, and that we don’t have a sure path forward today, but he was resolute,” said Sherrill. “We have got to find a way to support them in winning the war.”

A similar message was presented by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who met with Zelenskiy in an impromptu visit to Ukraine with other Democratic senators the Friday after the conference. Schumer’s goals included showing the Ukrainian people, as well as NATO and European allies, “that Americans stand with them.”

We believe we are at an inflection point in history and we must make it clear to our friends and allies around the globe that the U.S. does not back away from our responsibilities and allies,” Schumer said in a statement explaining his trip. “When we return to Washington, we will make clear to [House Speaker Mike] Johnson—and others in Congress who are obstructing military and economic support—exactly what is at stake here in Ukraine and for the rest of Europe and the free world.”

But as much as Schumer may wish to communicate that message at home and abroad, he ultimately cannot control what the House does or does not decide today, influenced by the political will of Trump. Indeed, not every lawmaker in Munich was there to spread good tidings of incipient congressional action on Ukraine. Senator J.D. Vance, a potential vice president pick for Trump and frequent expounder of his “America First” philosophy, attended the conference as part of the McCain CODEL. Vance declined to attend bipartisan meetings with other senators and leaders such as Zelenskiy. He delivered remarks on Sunday morning—after several conference attendees had left, according to Whitehouse. “I don’t think his audience was in Munich,” Whitehouse said.

Vance insisted in his Munich remarks that “Donald Trump was maybe the best president at deterring Russia in a generation,” and argued that his perspective represented “the majority of American public opinion, even though I don’t represent the majority of opinion of senators who come to Munich.”

“If the package that’s running through the Congress right now, $61 billion of supplemental aid to Ukraine, goes through, I have to be honest to you, that is not going to fundamentally change the reality on the battlefield. The amount of munitions that we can send to Ukraine right now is very limited,” Vance said in a panel discussion. However, the funding deal that Vance opposes includes billions of dollars in investments to increase weapons production in factories in the U.S.  

Still, Murphy said he was “really glad” that Vance had attended the conference. “These conferences often exist in a plane separated from reality. The reality is, there’s a ton of Republicans who are listening to Donald Trump and preparing to hand Ukraine to Russia,” Murphy said. “I don’t agree with his position. I think it’s incredibly dangerous and demonstrably weakens America. But I think it was important for world leaders to hear it directly instead of having us filter it.”

Vance’s remarks were a portent to those at the conference that a second Trump term would likely diverge substantially from the kinds of promises offered by Republican senators of a more internationalist bent, said Simon Miles, an assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

“Those people, while they’ll keep their Senate seats or what have you, they are not going to be heard from in the Oval Office, and they are not going to be allowed into a Cabinet-level type position,” said Miles. The so-called “adults in the room”—shorthand for the longtime foreign policy and military experts who were thought to constrain Trump’s most isolationist impulses as Cabinet officials—will not be permitted to have sway a second time around.

“[Trump’s] going to make sure that the implementers are ideological loyalists, and … his wing of the party has already started a significant effort to identify those people to place them in positions of significant responsibility in the event that he does win in November 2024,” Miles continued. If chosen to serve in the hypothetical second Trump administration, as vice president or in another capacity, Vance would represent that school of thought.

But Vance’s point of view was the minority among Republicans at the conference. Representative Mike Turner—the GOP chair of the House Intelligence Committee—highlighted the commitment of many Republicans to aiding Ukraine after joining the meeting with Zelenskiy. “I do think that there is an opportunity when we get back to Washington to move this important aid package forward because it is so critical,” Turner said on NBC News’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “I think there’s certainly sufficient support in the House and the Senate.”

A bipartisan group of representatives—not including Turner—introduced their own supplemental package, including aid to Ukraine, last week, although it’s uncertain if this will get approval from House leadership, much less in the Senate. Sherrill noted that the supplemental legislation that passed in the Senate was approved with more than 70 votes—an outcome that would be very difficult to replicate with a new bill.

“We just have to figure out how to get a vote on the floor procedurally,” said Sherrill about a vote on the House floor on the supplemental, which Speaker Mike Johnson has yet to allow. “We won’t have to send it back through the Senate, we can just send it right to the president’s desk. So trying to find these other off-ramps, I think, that just gives us more time for things to go wrong.”

The bill proposed by Fitzpatrick would include several border-related provisions, such as reimplementing the “Remain in Mexico” policy. A bipartisan trio in the Senate, including Murphy, had negotiated a thorough bill to overhaul border and asylum policy in the hopes of attaching it to the national security supplemental; however, it was rejected by the majority of Senate Republicans and was repeatedly bashed by both Trump and Johnson. The border was a touchy topic in Munich; GOP Senator Pete Ricketts received pushback at one panel for comparing the southern border to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although he acknowledged it was “not quite the same thing.”

“We will get there with regard to making the investments in our defense industrial base to supply the weapons to Ukraine, but it’s going to take time to get there,” Ricketts said. 

Murphy told me that “all the foreign leaders were cognizant of the border negotiations” and of their rejection by Senate Republicans. However, he added that they saw a “silver lining” in the talks as helping to spur further action on Ukraine.

Still, if the U.S. wants to maintain its legitimacy on the international stage, many lawmakers who attended the conference believe, Congress will need to act to approve aid quickly. 

“If we don’t pass this, if we walk away from these alliances—many of which we’ve had for over 50 years, some of which we’ve had since the birth of our nation—that could put a real crack in our protection of democracy, not just across the world, but certainly here at home,” said Sherrill.