Contrasts Vladimir Putin’s tyranny with the courageous leadership of President Zelenskyy and the incredible strength of the Ukrainian people
SALT LAKE CITY—U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) today joined CNN’s State of the Union with Dana Bash to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.
A transcript of their conversation can be found below, and full video can be found here.
Dana Bash: Welcome back to “State of the Union.” During the 2012 Presidential Campaign, our own Wolf Blitzer asked Republican nominee Mitt Romney about America’s enemies. This was his response.
Senator Mitt Romney (CLIP): Russia, this is without question our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.
Bash: He was widely mocked for that answer. But with Russian tanks rolling toward Ukrainian cities and the crisis consuming the Biden Presidency and threatening the world order, things look differently now. Joining me now exclusively is Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. Senator, thank you so much for joining me. I want to start with the news this morning, minutes ago, which is that the Ukrainian President announced that Ukrainians and Russians will meet at the Belarus border. Do you see that as a good sign?
Romney: Let me pause for the moment and note the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people. They have galvanized the spirit of the entire world. A lot of that is to do with real leadership. You’ve seen both physical and moral leadership by Zelenskyy and the people around him. It’s the contrast between that kind of leadership and the puny nature of Vladimir Putin’s tyranny that has really helped people understand the difference between good and evil. We’re seeing that play out right now. As for the prospects of discussions at the border. Look, I hope and I believe that Putin may well finally recognize that he made a huge error, that he has badly miscalculated how hard the people of Ukraine would fight and the nature of the world’s response. In this modern world with war being conducted and people filming it and passing it around the world, there’s been a response that I don’t think Putin had anticipated. I hope that’s what he’s doing. I fear he may be trying to take Zelenskyy off the streets of Kyiv and by doing so, making the Ukrainian people less willing to fight. I hope he’s wising up to the stupidity of what he’s doing.
Bash: You’re saying you think this could be a ruse?
Romney: I think all things can be—listening to Putin and the days leading up to the invasion he kept saying they weren’t planning on invading. Obviously he was lying, and so you can’t trust a word that comes out of his mouth. At the same time, I think he may be recognizing—he should be recognizing—that this is not going well for him. NATO has come together. Germany is now saying that they’re going to be investing far more in their military capacity. They’re providing more weapons. The world is behind the people of Ukraine. Look at those brave people in Ireland stopping the Russian ambassador. We should be doing that all over the world, by the way. The Russian government is a pariah. The entire world should be protesting and letting Russia know how badly they’re seen on the world stage.
Bash: The U.S. and its allies just announced new sanctions on the Russian Central Bank and plans to remove some banks from the international SWIFT banking system. Was that the right move? You mentioned some things, but what additional steps should the U.S. be taking?
Romney: Well, keep cranking that up. As Mitch McConnell said, you can’t get the sanctions too high. At the same time, recognize for the sanctions to be most effective, you want them to be shared with our allies around the world. We want to all be together on this. So we can only go as fast as everybody wants to move together. So that’s critical. Those sanctions will have an impact. I also noted in that release from the White House that we and our allies are going to be going after the oligarchs, going after their mansions, after their yachts. This is very good news and the kind of thing we ought to be doing. I also think consideration of a humanitarian zone, a no-fly zone, to allow people to escape from Kyiv, if that’s necessary, may be something we need to consider as well. Let’s keep on cranking up the sanctions against what is an evil regime.
Bash: I don’t know if you just heard my interview with the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. She seemed to not think that a no-fly zone is a good idea if it means that there would be U.S. troops involved in enforcing that fly zone. Where do you stand on that?
Romney: Well, I think it’s something that you consider. You may want to negotiate it with the Russians and with our allies. You may decide that this is something that would be done by the U.N. or by us, but clearly the humanitarian demand may be such that we will look for a way to allow the mothers and children that are currently being huddled in subway stations to be able to find refuge. Look at the people of Poland, how heroic they are, providing the clothing and the housing and the food for these refugees that are pouring into their country and also in Romania. Look, this is one of the greatest demonstrations of good versus evil that we’ve seen during our lifetimes, and the demonstration of courage. Look at Vladimir Putin. Here he is behind this huge table in this big white room. It looks like a mausoleum where honesty and honor have gone to die. Contrast that with Zelenskyy, with his courage, his passion, with his true leadership. This is remarkable, and it’s having an impact. I hope it makes us a better people and makes us more committed to the principles of freedom. Look, you recognize that in the history of the world, authoritarianism has been the default setting. To have freedom, it requires people to stand up and protect it. You’re seeing the terrible miscalculation by Vladimir Putin causing the kind of commitment to freedom that we hoped we’d see.
Bash: I want to go back in time a little bit, Senator. Do you think it was a mistake for President Biden to rule out U.S. troops on the ground instead of trying to use what’s known as strategic ambiguity to deter Vladimir Putin from invading in the first place?
Romney: Well, there really wouldn’t have been an ambiguity. We don’t have the kind of troop strength and material of war in the region to be a serious threat at that point. Look, the Biden Administration has done some things very well and some things not so well. The not-so-well side is they continued the policy of prior administrations not to provide the defensive weapons that Ukraine needed. That was a mistake. The positive thing was sharing our intelligence with our allies and combining our efforts with our allies. Look, we used to be 40% of the world economy. Today we’re about half of that. For us to have the economic clout we used to have back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, we really do need to combine with our allies. That’s something President Biden has done extraordinarily well.
Bash: I want to play an exchange you had in a presidential debate with then-President Obama. You were running to defeat him. That was ten years ago in 2012. I want you to listen to that and we’ll talk on the other side.
Barack Obama (CLIP): When you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda. You said Russia. The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. The Cold War has been over for 20 years.
Romney (CLIP): I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin.
Bash: I don’t need to tell you you were mocked for saying that. Thoughts now?
Romney: First of all, politics is an extraordinarily interesting game, as you know. President Obama didn’t quote what I actually said. What I said was Russia was a geopolitical foe. I didn’t say they were a threat. A geopolitical foe they obviously were and continue to be because Russia continues to fight us in any venue that they have. They support the world’s worst actors, whether Assad in Syria, Maduro in Venezuela, Kim Jong-un in North Korea. This is what they do. They basically poke us in the eye everywhere they can. China is the greatest threat to us long term, economically, militarily. And Russia, in a lot of aspects, is circling the drain given their shrinking population. John McCain used to say Russia is a gas station parading as a nation. They’re poking us where they can. As I said, I don’t look back so much and worry about what is said during a political campaign. What does concern me is we’ve had president after president—not just President Obama—but President Trump, President Bush who were resetting relations with Russia, hoping as they looked in the eyes of Vladimir Putin they could see a responsible person. John McCain was right. He said he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw the KGB. That’s what we’re seeing. A small, evil, feral-eyed man who is trying to shape the world in the image where once again Russia would be an empire. And that’s not going to happen. The people of the world see him and see Russia for what it is. They’re saying no, we will fight for freedom. What we’re seeing is inspiring. It is powerful, and it will help change the world in a positive way.
Bash: Given the way you just described Vladimir Putin, how worried are you that he is going to try to invade other non-NATO countries in the region—Finland, for example—or even NATO allies like Poland?
Romney: Well, every tyrant will judge what next step they take based upon the response to the last step. Now, of course, in the past he invaded Georgia. He invaded Ukraine by going into Crimea. He has obviously gone into our elections and attacked our cyber systems. And in each of these things our response was tepid. As a result he feels emboldened to go to Ukraine. We finally are saying no, and in part because of people with phones and courage from the people of Ukraine, the world recognizes the difference between good and evil here. This, I think, is going to reset his calculation of what he would do. But let there be no confusion, were he to attack a nation where we have an agreement to protect that nation under Article 5 in the NATO articles where, in fact, an attack on one is an attack on all, we will respond with full force. We have a responsibility. We’re people with honor and integrity, and we will fulfill our commitments.
Bash: In President Trump’s first impeachment trial, you were the lone Republican to vote to convict him. You said then he, “Delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders.” That ally, of course, was Ukraine. That infamous 2019 phone call, in it President Zelenskyy said, “We are almost ready to buy more javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” Trump responded, “I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” Again, reflect on that right now through the eyes of what’s happening on the ground.
Romney: I’m sure there are many people who would like to ignore that. Obviously, that was a very sad and awful exchange on the part of our president. This was Zelenskyy, now a world hero, asking for weapons, and it was an American president slow-walking the provision of those weapons in order to have Zelenskyy carry out a political investigation on his foe. It was wrong. It was in violation of a president’s responsibility to defend our nation and defend the cause of freedom and resulted in his being impeached. Now, I think we at this stage look and say, all right, what are we going to do going forward? I’m pleased to see that President Trump, as President Biden and others, have come together and said, look, we stand with the Ukrainian people. But without question, President Trump slow-walking the provision of weapons to Ukraine was an enormous error, and so was the error I think of our nation over some decades, not giving the kind of military defensive capability that Ukraine needed to make the calculation that went through Vladimir Putin’s mind a more clear calculation, that taking on Ukraine was not an easy thing to do. By the way, given the energy and the passion and the leadership we’re seeing from Ukraine, I wouldn’t count them out in being able to reject Russia’s aggression.
Bash: You’ve talked several times during this interview about the world seeing the difference between good and evil. I want to bring that closer to home and talk about something that Congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted yesterday about sitting Republican House members appearing at a white nationalist gathering. She said, “As Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar speak at this white supremacist, anti-Semitic, pro-Putin event, silence by Republican party leaders is deafening and enabling. All Americans should renounce this garbage and reject the Putin wing of the GOP now. Do you agree?
Romney: Absolutely, Liz Cheney was right with that statement and has been right for a long time. I also saw that Ronna McDaniel came out with a statement, as well, talking about how repugnant these white nationalists are. Look, there’s no place in either political party for this white nationalism or racism. It’s simply wrong. As you’ve indicated, speaking of evil, it’s evil as well. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, I don’t know them but I’m reminded of the old line from the Butch Cassidy where one character says, “Morons, I’ve got morons on my team.” I think anybody who would sit down with white nationalists at their conference is certainly missing a few IQ points.
Bash: And just more broadly, the pro-Putin sentiment you are seeing from some corners of your party.
Romney: Well, a lot of those people are changing their stripes as they’re seeing the response of the world and the political response here in the U.S. But how anybody, how anybody in this country, which loves freedom, can side with Vladimir Putin, which is an oppressor, a dictator. He kills people. He imprisons his political opponents. He’s been an adversary of America at every chance he’s had. It’s unthinkable to me. It’s almost treasonous. And it just makes me ill to see some of these people do that. But of course they do it because it’s shock value and it’s going to get them maybe more eyeballs and make a little more money for them and their network. It’s disgusting. I’m hopeful you’re seeing some of those people recognize just how wrong they were.
Bash: Treasonous is a big word, so I just have to quickly follow up. Would that include the former president?
Romney: Well, I said it’s nearly treasonous. Standing up for freedom is the right thing to do in America. Anything less than that, in my opinion, is unworthy of American support.
Bash: Meanwhile, I know that you’re well aware that something big is coming your way to the United States Senate, and that is a Supreme Court nominee. Judge Ketanji Brown [Jackson] is somebody who you have called an experienced jurist, but you did not vote last year to put her on the Court of Appeals. Are you open to voting yes this time?
Romney: Yeah, I’m going to take a very deep dive and have the occasion to speak with her about some of the concerns when she was before the Senate to go onto the Circuit Court. Look, her nomination and her confirmation would or will be historic. Like anyone nominated by the President of the United States, she deserves a very careful look, a very deep dive. I’ll provide fresh eyes to that evaluation and hope that I’ll be able to support her in the final analysis.
Bash: Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, I really appreciate your time this morning, sir.