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Trump rejects Putin’s peace terms while Biden unnerves Democrats at historic debate

by Owen Racer June 28, 2024 8:46 AM 7 min read
U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, US on June 27, 2024. President Biden and former President Trump are facing off in the first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
by Owen Racer June 28, 2024 8:46 AM 7 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump, sharing a debate stage with the incumbent Joe Biden for the first time in four years, said Russia’s terms of keeping Ukrainian land it’s occupied are not acceptable.

In a historic debate that focused little on foreign policy, no specific plans for reaching peace in Ukraine were mentioned by either party’s front runner. Entering a debate where many view the presidential rematch unfavorably, the leading candidates, standing just eight feet from each other on a CNN stage in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, preferred to focus on domestic issues like inflation and immigration.

Featuring no opening statements and 90 minutes of back-and-forth, the debate – which reopened discussion among Democrats about Biden’s viability as the party’s candidate in response to his shaky performance – was the first time in history a sitting U.S. president debated a former president.

“Foreign policy played almost no role in this debate,” Kurt Volker, the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO said to the Kyiv Independent following the debate. “It will play almost no role in the election.”

It’s worth noting, Volker said, that Ukrainians were frustrated with the Biden Administration going into this debate for restrictions on U.S. weapons in Ukraine. “[Biden] seems a little confused and lost and they look at that and say ‘we’re going to have four more years of that being the basis of support for Ukraine?’” said Volker, who also served as the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017 to 2019 until he resigned amid the whistleblower report surrounding the infamous Trump-Zelensky phone call. “I think Ukrainians are going to feel very concerned.”

Trump was asked, twice, “Are Putin’s terms acceptable to you, even the territory of Ukraine?” The 78-year-old responded, “No they’re not acceptable,” before quickly repeating – without evidence – that the full-scale invasion wouldn’t have happened under his presidency and criticizing the aid given to Ukraine under the Biden Administration.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, US on June 27, 2024. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Although the CNN moderator’s question wasn’t specific, Putin recently demanded that for peace talks to begin, Ukraine must withdraw from the entire territory of its four regions that are currently under partial occupation by Russia.

Anyone who is worried about Ukraine didn’t come away from this debate with any new information or new perspectives, Volker said. However, in a campaign where Trump’s repeated mentions of Ukraine fail to include details of how he would end the conflict before taking office, his brief rejection of Vladimir Putin’s interest in keeping Ukrainian land is more insight than typically shared.

“People getting killed so needlessly, so stupidly,” Trump said, answering the question of whether Putin’s terms are acceptable. “I will get it settled and I will get it settled fast before I take office.”

Unless Ukraine agrees to hold peace negotiations with Russia, the U.S. should halt military aid, according to two of Trump’s former National Security Council advisors who recently proposed the plan.

Trump again laid the blame for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine at Biden’s feet, saying Putin was encouraged to invade after watching the chaotic 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. “When Putin saw that he said ‘I think we’re going to go in,’” Trump said. “This was his dream, I talked to him about it.”

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks during the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, US on June 27, 2024. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Before saying that it is “so sad” how many people Ukraine has lost in Russia’s war, Trump doubled down on his message that Russia didn’t invade during his presidency. “I get along with him very well but he knew not to play games with me.”

When the debate – which featured no audience and muted microphones – pivoted to discussing Israel, Trump seemingly realized he forgot to repeat one of his main arguments about the war in Ukraine. Europe needs to “put up the money” the former president made sure to mention.

President Biden, who defended NATO throughout the debate and even asked – without receiving an answer – if Trump would withdraw from the alliance, sought credit for uniting countries around support for Ukraine. However, that isn’t likely what his party or the independent voters he’s hoping to sway in November will remember.

In addition to his demeanor and repeated throat clears that offered no reassurances to voters, 81-year-old Biden pivoted away from abortion, one of his best issues to unite his party, to immigration, one of his worst issues that Trump wants to highlight.

As the debate barreled through a raspy-voiced Biden and factual inaccuracies by Trump, the former president’s campaign blasted emails to supporters. “Under President Donald J. Trump…Russia was under control,” one read.

“We are in a little bit of a calm before the storm,” Emily Channell-Justice, a program director at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute said ahead of the debate.

“I think Ukraine is going to become a hinge point for political platforms,” Channell-Justice said, adding that she’s particularly watching the anti-support for Ukraine gaining popularity on the far right.

For a historically early debate that was largely about temperament and looking presidential as the candidates both have records to examine, president Biden didn’t do himself any energizing favors less than five months out from the election.

Ahead of the debate, nearly 50 percent of voters said they didn’t want a Trump-Biden rematch, according to an Economist/YouGov poll.

The lead up

The likely Republican nominee and the incumbent president took vastly different approaches to preparing for the debate. Biden was hunkered down with over a dozen aids in the northern woods of Maryland at Camp David, the presidential retreat. Trump held a rally in Philadelphia days before the debate where he suggested – without evidence – that Biden would be taking performance-enhancing supplements before the debate.

The candidates’ debate in Atlanta, Georgia – like their consistent appearances in Pennsylvania – highlighted the importance of the southern swing state that went for Biden by just 11,779 votes in the 2020 presidential election.

Despite being convicted of 34 felony charges last month, Trump has united his party behind him more efficiently than Biden has Democrats, according to a New York Times and Siena College poll released on the eve of the debate. Nearly 90 percent of Republicans view Trump favorably after the convictions, the poll shows, with over two-thirds of voters saying their vote didn’t change after the trial.

A gag order placed on Trump following his 34 convictions in Manhattan was partially lifted days before the debate, allowing him to verbally degrade people involved in the trial. However, Trump largely avoided a spotlight on his convictions.

Since Trump’s foreign policy plans have been consistently vague for months, many have turned to the Republicans congregating around the former president either hopeful of influencing him or joining his administration should he win in November. Robert O’Brien, Trump’s fourth national security adviser most recently said Trump’s unpredictability would lead to negotiations with Russia and that future aid to Ukraine would come from Europe, not the U.S.

Trump wasn’t the only national star from the Republican party in Atlanta, he brought with him the three leading candidates for his vice presidency: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, a leader in the Democratic party, was also in Atlanta speaking with journalists and defending Biden’s record.

Biden, who first stepped onto the presidential debate stage in 1987, is set to debate Trump again on Sept. 10.

The candidates gave viewers a parting indicator of their priorities when they each were granted closing remarks. Trump rattled through topics from Afghanistan and respect from the U.S. military to Palestinians and Ukraine, repeating the full-scale war “should have never happened,” while Biden looked into the camera and discussed changes to the tax system.

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