WITH UKRAINE, DEBATE OVER TRUMP EFFECT. President Joe Biden talked tough in the weeks that Russia built up troops on its border with Ukraine. In a phone call with Vladimir Putin over the weekend, according to the White House, Biden told the Russian leader that the U.S. would "respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia" if Putin invades Ukraine.

Then, when Russia moved into the Donbas, a separatist region of Ukraine, the White House began to play word games with the word "invade." A senior administration official held a phone briefing for reporters Monday afternoon and was asked: Do Russia's actions constitute an invasion and thus trigger the "severe costs" Biden had threatened?

The senior administration official hedged. "I want to remind you ...that the Russian troops moving into Donbas would not itself be a new step," he answered. "Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the past eight years ... They're apparently now making a decision to do this in a more overt and open way. But this has been the state of affairs in that region and a big part of why it has been so unstable since 2014."

Subscribe today to the Washington Examiner magazine that will keep you up to date with what's going on in Washington. SUBSCRIBE NOW: Just $1.00 an issue!

Was that a yes? A no? Another reporter asked if that meant Russia would have to move beyond Donbas to constitute what "you guys would consider a new invasion." The official hedged again: "We are going to observe and assess what Russia does in the hours ahead and overnight, that we are going to respond to any actions that Russia takes in a way that we believe is appropriate to the action."

Lawmakers of both parties were quick to criticize Biden for not spelling out the situation more clearly. "Enough is enough," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Putin's actions "should immediately be met with forceful sanctions to destroy the ruble and crush the Russian oil and gas sector." On the Democratic side, the president's fellow Delawarean, Sen. Chris Coons, said that "the time for taking action to impose significant costs on President Putin and the Kremlin starts now."

By Tuesday morning, the White House stopped the wordplay and got its message together. "This is the beginning of an invasion," Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer said on CNN. "An invasion is an invasion, and that is what is underway."

Among some on the right, a secondary debate emerged over whether Putin is acting in reaction to the specific weakness of Biden and whether Putin would have moved against Ukraine if Donald Trump were still president. There was an unpredictability about Trump, they argued — call it the Soleimani effect, after the top Iranian general Trump ordered U.S. forces to kill in January 2020. A shocking action like that will get other foreign leaders' attention, Trump supporters say.

"Legacy media is going to have a very tough time working around the fact that the tyrant Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 and will do so again in 2022 but did not do so between 2017 and 2020," tweeted conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. "Why was Putin deterred in those years but not now or in 2014? Don't expect a lot of analysis."

National Review editor Rich Lowry added: "The sheer unpredictability of Trump, his anger at being defied or disrespected, his willingness to take the occasional big risk (the Suleimani strike), all had to make Putin frightened or wary of him in a way that he simply isn't of Joe Biden."

Anti-Trump voices immediately struck back. "This is some Dollar Store revisionism," tweeted Rick Wilson, co-founder of the Resistance fundraising group The Lincoln Project. "Trump never once showed any anger, risk-taking or unpredictability with Putin. He showed deference, adoration, admiration, obedience, and sought to wreck NATO, Putin's highest goals. Putin didn't need to buy the cow. The milk was free."

Many others in anti-Trump circles made similar arguments. But they ignored the fact that Trump's policies were, in fact, tougher on Russia than predecessor Barack Obama's. In a January 2021 newsletter, I recounted the case that a Republican lawmaker made to me that Trump was tough on Russia. Trump had, the lawmaker said: 1) Bombed Syria, Russia's main client, and unleashed the U.S. military in Syria, including against Russians; 2) Armed Ukraine; 3) Ended the Iran nuclear deal; 4) Browbeat NATO allies to increase defense spending; 5) Approved $130 billion in new defense spending; 6) Added low-yield nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal; 7) Started research and development on a new missile after Russia deployed a missile that did not comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; 8) Shut down Russia's consulate in San Francisco; and 9) Pumped more U.S. oil and gas, making the U.S. more energy independent. And on top of that, Trump kept earlier sanctions on Russia and added new ones himself.

It was a solid record. In Trump's last few weeks in office, CNN's Fareed Zakaria noted, "The dirty little secret about the Trump administration was that while Donald Trump clearly had a kind of soft spot for Putin, the Trump administration was pretty tough on the Russians." Indeed, it was.

So now, there is the Ukraine debate. For all those saying definitively that Trump would have done this or would not have done that: It is simply impossible to know what Trump would do in today's circumstances. It is also impossible to know whether today's circumstances would have developed as they have had Trump been president.

What is possible to know is that Biden, who sold himself during the campaign as a seasoned foreign policy hand, after all, he spent a million years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is not nearly as sure-footed as he would have had us believe. That is becoming clearer every day.

For a deeper dive into many of the topics covered in the Daily Memo, please listen to my podcast, The Byron York Show — available on the Ricochet Audio Network and everywhere else podcasts can be found. You can use this link to subscribe.