In July 2018, President Donald Trump faced widespread condemnation for having sided with Russia over U.S. intelligence agencies at his infamous Helsinki summit with dictator Vladimir Putin.
Trump and Putin jointly assured the world that Russia didn't meddle in the 2016 election, even though it did. "I don't see any reason why he would have," Trump said. The chorus of outrage was led by Trump's Republican Party.
The late Senator John McCain called it a "disgraceful performance."
"No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant," he added. In Missouri, Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill joined the outcry across party lines, with Blunt noting "there is no doubt Russia attempted to interfere in our elections."
Josh Hawley wanted no part of this. As McCaskill's presumptive Republican opponent for U.S. Senate at the time, he sided with Trump all the way.
"President Trump won. Hillary lost," said Kelli Ford, Hawley's campaign spokeswoman. "It's time for Democrats and the media to move on, and the President should keep on being forceful with Russia."
As the Springfield News-Leader put it: "Blunt, McCaskill condemn President Trump for siding with Putin. Hawley brings up Hillary."
Ten days later, the Daily Beast broke the story that Russian intelligence had previously targeted McCaskill's campaign with a cyberattack.
"That makes the Missouri Democrat the first identified target of the Kremlin's election interference," the Daily Beast reported. The attack failed and somehow didn't become a campaign issue.
"Russia continues to engage in cyber warfare against our democracy," McCaskill said. "I will not be intimidated. I've said it before and I will say it again, Putin is a thug and a bully."
Most opponents with zero foreign-policy chops would have seized the moment to distance themselves from Putin. But not Hawley.
Now, it's clear why. Like Trump, Hawley has no problem with bloody dictators, if they're on his team. Particularly Vladimir Putin.
As Hawley demonstrated with his closed fist directed toward Trump's mob on January 6 outside the U.S. Capitol, democracy matters less to him than power. No U.S. Senate member did more than Hawley to support Trump's insurrection.
Hawley isn't America First as much as he's Hawley First. But do not underestimate his political skill. Lots of us thought Hawley was done politically when he raised that fist in the direction of the MAGA mob. We were wrong.
It's true that Hawley caught an unforeseeable break. Who would have imagined that, in the aftermath, the criminals would be hailed as patriots and political prisoners by many in the party?
History will remember January 6 as one of America's darkest days. But will it also be seen as the pivot point from which demagogues like Hawley unleashed the fascist forces that killed democracy? That remains to be seen.
Putin is on a quest to reconstruct the old Soviet Union. His treacherous assault on Ukraine is a means, not an end. Will Hawley be held accountable for having abetted this horror? Or will he be rewarded?
Either way, the junior senator from Missouri can be expected to occupy center stage. In the words of Esquire writer Charles Pierce, "The most dangerous place to stand in Washington D.C. is any place between Senator Josh Hawley and a live microphone."
Hawley has emerged as Putin's best friend in the Senate. Siding with Moscow every bit as much as Trump did at Helsinki, he has embraced KGB talking points.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Hawley argued that the U.S. should declare it will never support Ukraine's entry into NATO. That's at the top of Putin's wish list. And it rejects the longstanding, bipartisan U.S. foreign policy that nations like Ukraine should be free to choose their alliances.
A Kansas City Star editorial ripped Hawley as "the disgraceful voice of appeasement." It called for American unity behind Ukraine.
"Don't look to Hawley for help," the Star continued. "His public two-step about the Russian threat — amplified by countless tweets and television appearances — has clearly provided aid and comfort to Putin and hard-liners in Russia."
Hawley took his place as a Putin acolyte alongside Fox News demagogue Tucker Carlson, who said, "Why do I care ... what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? Why shouldn't I root for Russia, which I am?"
Even as Putin fired up the killer tanks on the Ukrainian border, useful idiot Hawley essentially transcribed the dictator's thoughts at FoxNews.com under the headline "Russia-Ukraine crisis — China is America's biggest enemy, not Moscow."
Why, this wasn't a world crisis. It was just a difference of opinion between two neighboring nations. What a perfect opportunity to change the subject to China.
If that sounds like bad politics, think again. Emulating Trump, Hawley uses ignorance of foreign policy to attack elites on behalf of the common man, with skills honed, ironically, by an Ivy League education. That's a golden formula in MAGA world.
"Josh Hawley seeks to be Putin's new favorite pet," wrote Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post.
"These people and a great deal of the GOP leadership will have blood on their hands," tweeted Alexander Vindman, a former staff member of the National Security Council. "They're fanning flames, encouraging Putin to attack Ukraine."
It doesn't get much better than that if you're Hawley. His top priority is creating his lane in the mad rush for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Toward that end, Rubin and Vindman's words serve as ringing endorsements.
So, pay no attention as Hawley pivots now to proclaiming the need for tough sanctions on Putin. He knows they don't matter to Putin.
Hawley also knows the nationalization of his persona means that he needn't waste much time in Missouri, just as he didn't in his two years as the state's drive-by attorney general. He can focus instead on pursuing the presidency (or whatever that position will be called in post-democratic America).
It falls to a fellow Republican — Congresssman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sum up Hawley best in a tweet:
"I hate to be so personal, but Hawley is one of the worst human beings, and a self-aggrandizing con artist. When Trump goes down, I certainly hope this evil will be laid in the open for all to see and be ashamed of."Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).