Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy got a standing ovation from a joint session of Congress for bravely leading his nation in the fight against a brutal Russian invasion. But not all of Congress.
Reps. Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert spent part of the speech glued to their phones and barely paying attention. Several others remained seated for many of the portions of the speech where Zelenskyy received standing ovations, and more didn’t attend the speech at all.
One, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, tweeted prior to the address that he was intentionally missing it while dismissing Ukraine’s war effort. “I’m in DC but I will not be attending the speech of the Ukrainian lobbyist,” Massie said.
The response to Zelenskyy’s speech by some GOP politicians and pundits popular with the right-wing base highlighted divisions among Republicans over Ukraine and a host of other issues as they prepare to take control of the House of Representatives and purse strings to decide whether the U.S. continues to help bankroll Ukraine’s war effort.
During his speech before Congress, Zelenskyy was sure to appeal to members of both parties and not just Democrats, who have uniformly supported Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion earlier this year.
“I am glad to stress that President Biden supported our peace initiative today. Each of you, ladies and gentlemen, can assist in its implementation to ensure that America’s leadership remains solid, bicameral and bipartisan,” Zelenskyy said.
Anticipating GOP arguments against further funding the war, Zelenskyy described financial assistance to Ukraine as “not charity,” but rather “an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
But even before Zelenskyy’s speech, the hardline conservatives in the House were downplaying the Ukrainian president’s visit. “Of course the shadow president has to come to Congress and explain why he needs billions of American’s taxpayer dollars for the 51st state, Ukraine,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who also did not attend the speech, tweeted Wednesday morning.
Zelenskyy received several standing ovations during the speech, but Boebert and Gaetz weren’t the only ones who largely remained seated. Reps. Jim Jordan, Andrew Clyde, and more repeatedly stayed in their seats while their colleagues around them jumped to their feet to applaud Zelenskyy, according to Axios.
At one point, Clyde, a George Republican, refused to stand even when encouraged by Jordan.
Some Republicans praised Zelenskyy’s speech, including Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who told The Hill that the Ukrainian president had “overwhelming support” from Congress and would “continue to have that.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech before the address that he looked forward “to hearing from the Ukrainian people’s elected leader at a critical moment in their struggle for their safety and sovereignty against Russia’s unhinged aggression,” and he accompanied Zelenskyy on his way into the House chambers along with Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Tucker Carlson, the in-house pundit of the far-right GOP, launched a full-throated attack on Zelenskyy during his Wednesday night broadcast. Carlson said the Ukrainian president, who wore a crewneck sweatshirt with the Ukrainain emblem, was “dressed like the manager of a strip club,” accused him of “waging a war against Christianity” in Ukraine, and compared him to Sam Bankman-Fried, the FTX cofounder indicted for fraud and money laundering who has nothing in common with aside from being Jewish.
After the speech, Boebert and Gaetz struck a more conciliatory tone than Carlson, applauding Zelenskyy for fighting for Ukraine while dismissing colleagues who are in favor of funding the war as anti-American.
“President Zelenskyy should be commended for putting his country first, but American politicians who indulge his requests are unwilling to do the same for ours,” Gaetz said in a statement following the speech. “He did not change my stance on suspending aid for Ukraine and investigating fraud in transfers already made.”
“President Zelenskyy is working to protect his country, his border, and his people. I get it,” Boebert said. “I really just wish our commander in chief would do the same right here at home.”