YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Presidents Biden and Putin face off and the ACA survives again.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I did what I came to do.
MS. ALCINDOR: President Biden back from his first foreign trip as head of state and a high-stakes meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (From video, through interpreter.) And I think it was very constructive.
MS. ALCINDOR: And despite some gains, differences on key issues remain like cyberattacks.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Certain critical infrastructure should be off limits.
MS. ALCINDOR: And human rights. Plus, a packed domestic agenda as the Supreme Court dismisses another GOP challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
SENATOR JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): (From video.) Probably a dubious decision.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) The ACA is here to stay.
MS. ALCINDOR: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. After his first foreign trip as commander in chief, President Biden is back on U.S. soil. On Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, the final and most anticipated event of the journey took place, a historic summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both leaders said the meeting was not hostile and was productive. Here’s what President Putin said after the meeting.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (From video, through interpreter.) Personally, I was convinced that President Biden is an experienced person. And it’s clear that we spoke face to face for almost two hours. That doesn’t happen with all leaders that you have such a detailed conversation face to face.
MS. ALCINDOR: But deep divisions remain. Here’s President Biden on his blunt message to the Russian president.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I made it clear that we will not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilize our democratic elections, and we would respond. The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.
MS. ALCINDOR: During this trip President Biden also met with the G-7, NATO allies, and the European Union. Plus, there was big domestic news: On Thursday, the Affordable Care Act survived another Republican Supreme Court challenge and a new bipartisan group of senators are trying to come up with a deal on infrastructure.
Joining us tonight are four reporters who covered these stories from both sides of the Atlantic: Kaitlan Collins, chief White House correspondent for CNN; Pete Williams, NBC News correspondent – justice correspondent; and joining me in studio Anne Gearan, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Garrett Haake, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News. Thank you to all of you, but special thanks to Kaitlan and Anne, who are I know jetlagged.
Anne, I want to start with you. The White House and sources have told me that President Biden, he accomplished what he came to do when it came to this trip. What are you hearing about this meeting? And when you think about this, what are the tangible commitments that President Biden got out of this summit?
ANNE GEARAN: So it’s – you’re right, the White House is thrilled. They feel like they really nailed it this week, and you know, on the – for the very low bar that they set for the Putin meeting as the main event, they’re right. I mean, the fact that the meeting happened at all, they got through it, it actually was on schedule, and the president – President Biden was able to run down his list of complaints and know that President Putin heard them, that’s basically what they set out to do, and he wanted to go into that meeting having had the previous experience of kind of knitting up with all of the allies starting in Cornwall at the G-7 and then moving to Brussels for the – for the NATO and EU meetings before he saw Putin as a symbolic gesture of solidarity that – after the Trump years, when you know, President Trump did a good bit of damage to those alliances and Putin profited from it. So it was – there was a whole lot of symbolism there, but in terms of actually getting something out of the entire trip there are a couple of deliverables before he got to Geneva to see Putin, and with Putin essentially they got what they set out to get, which is having a meeting at all, getting through it, making the list, moving on.
MS. ALCINDOR: And this was, as Anne said, Kaitlan, a very different tone. Both President Biden and Putin came out of this saying there weren’t any threats, but also, what’s the difference, Kaitlan, in your reporting, based on your reporting, between threats and consequences? Because we heard President Biden say that he told the Russian president there would be grave consequences if Russia had this continuing bad behavior.
KAITLAN COLLINS: He did, but of course, he also said he made no threats during that meeting. It’s kind of just repeating what he has said in the past. And I think the question that a lot of foreign policy and Russia experts have about that is, what happens when these sanctions and these threats and these responses don’t actually deter this aggressive Russian behavior that we have seen play out so many times over the last several years as Russia has tried to seek to reassert itself in the world and say, yes, we are still relevant, we are still a major power, look at the capability that we have? What I do think is interesting is what’s unfolded since this summit happened, which is that building up to this you saw Russian state media trashing the president, essentially, questioning whether or not he was out of his depth in the presidency. Since then you have seen President Putin come out and, in remarks after that sit down that he had with President Biden, praise him and say that he is not someone to be underestimated, which I think is so notable given, of course, anything that Russian state media says is sanctioned, obviously, tacitly, by Putin, and it’s notable just the way he has changed the way he’s talking about Biden. Of course, the question, ultimately, that remains to be seen is whether Russia actually does change its behavior.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s a good breakdown, Kaitlan, because I was thinking about the idea that after the summit you heard President Putin say he’s a – of Biden – he’s a very experienced stateman and someone who is very different from former President Trump. But after the summit, of course, President Putin faced some tough questions, including by Rachel Scott of ABC News, a friend of this show. Here is her exchange with President Putin.
RACHEL SCOTT: (From video.) If all of your political opponents are dead, in prison, poisoned, doesn’t that send a message that you do not want a fair political fight?
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (From video, through interpreter.) On the question of who is murdering whom, people rioted and went into the Congress in the U.S. with political demands, and many people were declared as criminals, and they are threatened with imprisonment from 20 to 25 years.
MS. ALCINDOR: Really strong questioning by Rachel Scott there. We’re all nodding our head in studio. Now, when I questioned President Biden about these comments by the Russian president, he pushed back.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I think that’s a – that’s a ridiculous comparison. It’s one thing for literally criminals to break through a cordon, go into the Capitol, kill a police officer, and be held unaccountable, and it is for people objecting and marching on a capital and saying you are not allowing me to speak freely.
MS. ALCINDOR: Pete, I want to come to you. President Biden said Putin wasn’t interested in a new Cold War, but what can President Biden really do to hold Putin accountable and how likely is it that we’re going to see any change regarding these hacks that we’ve seen?
PETE WILLIAMS: Well, there was that moment where the president said that he said to Putin, in essence, nice little infrastructure you have there; what if somebody in Florida or Maine were to launch an attack on your oil industry, wouldn’t that be devastating? There was some progress, I suppose you could say. They agreed to set up these working groups on infrastructure elements that are off limits and talk about ways to limit cyber, but – and I guess that’s some reason for optimism among some of the cyber people I’ve talked to, that at least there’s – at least they’re talking about it, but remember the U.S. made sort of similar noises after reaching something like this, an agreement with China, and nothing ever came of that, so I don’t think there’s a lot of optimism that the Russians are suddenly going to start cracking down on the cyber people who are launching all these attacks on the U.S.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Pete, I want to stick with you here. You talk about there being some optimism. I wonder, when you talk to intelligence officials before this summit and then after, what did they want to see and what are they saying after this summit?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I think the after-the-summit question is the follow up. Suppose all of this talk doesn’t get us anywhere and the Russians continue to attack, and you know, the big question is, what if they try to turn the lights off in Cleveland, would we try to do the same thing in Minsk? And there are some people who say, you know, maybe we ought to be willing to do that, to move things beyond considering cyberattacks in the U.S. a criminal matter and take them into a national security matter. That’s the largely unresolved question out of this.
MS. ALCINDOR: Garrett, I want to come to you. How is this summit being talked about on the Hill? I know there’s a lot of domestic news – we’re going to get to that – but what are people – what are lawmakers saying, if anything?
GARRETT HAAKE: Oddly, not that much, and I think the Biden White House would probably be pretty thrilled with that. Republicans going into this wanted to see the president take a hard line. They were hoping that he would bring up sanctions on that Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. That was probably never going to happen. But even afterwards, the criticism that Republicans were reaching for centered around things like, you know, did President Biden give up 16 secret infrastructure items that shouldn’t be attacked? It felt kind of ticky-tack and bad faith. I don’t think anybody thought that the president stepped on a rake in these conversations. And I think compared to the Helsinki conference with President Trump, when everyone in the bigger Capitol Hill community was kind of holding their breath for the whole week to see how that was going to play out, the relative, you know, lack of ripples in the international waters over this was striking in and of itself.
MS. ALCINDOR: When you’re talking about ripples in international waters I’m thinking about when I covered former President Trump in his meeting in Helsinki, and those were large waves in the ocean after. (Laughs.) So many officials really cringing sometimes.
Anne, I want to come to you. Tell me a little bit about what you think this trip reveals about the Biden foreign doctrine. And when you think about kind of where this goes now, is President – did President Biden succeed in putting European leaders at ease that the Trump era is really, really gone, and that his view is going to last past four years?
MS. GEARAN: Yeah. I think I would separate those two things. The Biden foreign policy doctrine is essentially pragmatism, which a lot of foreign policy is about, right? And he clearly did that, but he also – excuse me.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s OK, we were all on a long flight, so I’m clutching my hot tea, so please. (Laughter.)
MS. GEARAN: But he also, I think, made a real effort to try to take the foreign policy doctrine beyond pragmatism, and to say that what the United States wants here is to say to its allies, we’re with you, we are back as leaders on the world stage, and the allies were thoroughly thrilled to have that conversation, and yes, they believe him. But you could hear in his answer when I asked him a question at the NATO summit about essentially why should allies believe what you say if another – if Trump is reelected, or another Trump-like figure could come in behind in three years’ time and change – and the pendulum swings and everything changes again?
You could tell in his answer that he had been thinking about that question, and you know, he didn’t have a succinct answer to it. He essentially said, I’m not going to make any promises I don’t think will be kept. The United States is a good country. We’re good people. We’ll do our best, was essentially where that answer ended up. Which, you know, if you talked to certainly French, and German, and British diplomats, they’re thinking about this too. They are well aware that the pendulum in the United States could swing again, and they’re perfectly delighted to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement and be on the road to rejoining the international nuclear deal with Iran and doing other things that are ally-like, but Trump changed the terms of this conversation.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, well, when I talk to international experts, they say a lot of people – a lot of European leaders, in particular, they think it’s going to take several election cycles for America to really be back. And Kaitlan, I want to come to you. There were also these – there were all these warm meetings with European allies, but there were also, of course, real key differences on things like how to push back on China. What’s your reporting tell you about where those relationships stand and how those differences play out?
MS. COLLINS: I think those differences still remain. I think you did see such unity and division, and something that you don’t often see, which is other world leaders being so thankful that there is different leadership in the United States. That is something that, obviously, you can sometimes tell when they like one leader better than the other, but to see them so explicitly saying it is still really out of character and surprising for these kinds of summits. However, despite that being said and despite the White House touting this trip as a big success for them and saying that, yeah, America is back and leading the free world, there are massive differences, and China is just one of many of them, but it is a significant one because there are European allies who do not agree with the U.S. approach to China, and do not agree that it’s as big of a threat as the U.S. frames it. And so it was notable that they did mention China 12 times, I believe, in that joint statement that those world leaders signed, but if you think about who they think is a bigger threat, they mentioned Russia over 60 times in that joint statement. So there is still a fundamental shift in the views of not only how they view China but also how to approach China going forward. And that is something that I think that the Biden administration will be dealing with for all four years that he is president, because that is something that he has made essentially his number-one foreign policy goal, is to deal with a rising China, but what do you do when other allies that you want to be united with you don’t see it as much of a rise and as aggressive as you do?
MS. ALCINDOR: And that’s completely true – when you think about all the reporting that me, you and Anne did, you heard from White House officials over and over again that China was coming up in a contentious way.
Garrett, the other thing that the White House and President Biden was talking about was foreign policy as a middle-class issue. They had this deal, this truce that was reached after a 17-year trade dispute between the EU and the U.S. Is that landing, and how is foreign policy for the middle class – how is it translating to the actual middle class?
MR. HAAKE: Well, we’re going to have to see. I mean, I don’t know that there was anything that came back from this summit that immediately people woke up all around the country and thought, oh my goodness, our jobs are back. The ending of the Boeing-Airbus dispute is a big deal, especially in those communities in which aerospace is a big part of the fabric of it. But I do think this is all tied together with the infrastructure agenda, the other big pieces that the Biden White House is trying to pass.
Remember, there’s also that China competitiveness bill that has finally worked its way through the Senate – the first really big spending bill through regular order in the Senate. It’s got a different fate, potentially, in the House. It still has to get through there, but there is an effort to align what normalized relationships with the rest of the world look like and American competitiveness. You can see the through-line here, but it’s really just starting.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, well, I want to turn now to another story that I woke up to on a plane that was flying back to the U.S. It is this critical Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act. This week the Court rejected a Trump-backed challenge to the health care law. The lawsuit was filed by Texas and other Republican states. Democrats on Capitol Hill celebrated the decision. Here’s House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Today’s Supreme Court decision is a landmark victory for Democrats’ work to defend protections for people with preexisting conditions. We will never forget how Republican leaders embraced this monstrous way to rip away America’s health care in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
MS. ALCINDOR: Pete, I have to go to you here. The ACA has how survived three Supreme Court challenges. Do Republicans plan to challenge it again and again in court, and where might this go?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I think there are going to be more challenges to the Affordable Care Act, but not the overall architecture, not its survival, not whether it should live or die. There may be attacks on specific provisions, but they’ve – they’re 0-for-3. And this last time the Court’s three liberals were joined by four of the Court’s conservatives – Chief Justice John Roberts, who of course voted to uphold it twice before; Clarence Thomas, who voted not to uphold it twice before; Amy Coney Barrett, who Democrats said was put on the Court to kill Obamacare; and Brett Kavanaugh. So the Court basically made this decision, although it said Texas and the red states didn’t have the legal standing to sue because they couldn’t show how a non-enforceable part, the individual mandate, could harm them if it didn’t do anything. They also made it very hard for anyone else to make that same claim. So, yes, there are going to probably be more challenges on certain parts of it, but not on the overall bill itself – the act itself.
MS. ALCINDOR: And as you noted, two of President – former President Trump’s controversial Supreme Court justices, nominees, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, they both voted with the opinion – with the majority opinion here. Was that surprising, and what does that say, if at all, about future decisions?
MR. WILLIAMS: I have to say, the outcome wasn’t surprising, because I think most people thought this Texas lawsuit was going to go over like a lead balloon in the Supreme Court, but for a different reason. Remember, the Texas states had said the problem is the individual mandate’s unconstitutional, and if you take that out the whole law has to fail, and that seemed to be a complete nonstarter when the case was argued before the Supreme Court. So I think many of us thought, OK, the Court’s going to say, well, even if it’s unconstitutional the rest of the law can survive. Instead, they decided a question that was much earlier in the process: Did the states have the right to get into the courthouse door in the first place?
What does it say about the Court? It says – this and another decision the Court made on religious freedom – says that what we have now is a Supreme Court that’s divided three-three-three: three liberals, three moderate conservatives – the chief, Kavanaugh and Barrett – and then three of the most conservative justices – Thomas, Gorsuch, and Alito. And what we really are seeing now, at least in the decisions leading up to the last couple of weeks of the term – we have 15 cases left – is a real division among the conservatives. This has not turned out to be the solid conservative juggernaut that many people were expecting, hoping for, or fearing.
MS. ALCINDOR: Three, three, three, I think we should all be thinking about the Supreme Court in that way. Garrett, I want to come to you. How is this impacting things on Capitol Hill? You see Democrats sort of levitating they’re so happy, but I also wonder, with 600,000 Americans dead from COVID, how are they thinking about the way forward?
MR. HAAKE: Democrats have two priorities now. They want to try to expand coverage, and they’re not in agreement on the best way to do that. There are some who think the best way to do that is to try to lower the eligibility age for Medicare, possibly as a step eventually towards Medicare for all, a goal of many progressives. There are some who’d like to see the public option be put in place, which was originally debated as part of Obamacare and left on the cutting room floor, and which Joe Biden ran on, but is a much more complicated legislative feat and probably impossible to do in a 50-50 Senate. The lower-hanging fruit would be to try to find a way to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. That’s something that at least in theory Republicans agree with them on. But again, in a 50-50 Senate, with almost no margin for error in the House either, that’s more complicated than Democrats would like it to be, too. And I think if we’ve learned anything about the politics of health care over the last couple of years and all of these challenges to the Affordable Care Act, people, one, they like what they have, they want to defend what they have, even if it’s a thing they didn’t like before, but once you start tinkering with people’s health care you risk that public backlash, and so Democrats are going to tread cautiously here.
MS. ALCINDOR: Anne, I saw you nodding you head. I want to jump – I want you to jump in here with the White House perspective of this.
MS. GEARAN: Well, I mean, obviously, the White House is pleased that the ACA has survived again. I mean, as Pete was alluding to, this was the weakest of the three challenges that the law survived, and the fact that, you know – it cannot be overstated how much Trump affected the Supreme Court. I mean, there – it is highly unusual to be able to name three justices in a single presidential term. So everyone was waiting to see how the Court would function, this radically different Court would function, and the answer in these two very consequential cases, you know, is a surprise, as – you know, as Pete laid out very expertly there. The White House was waiting to see that, too. I mean, they don’t know; these are not their people, they do not understand exactly how this is going to play out, and I imagine they are pleased by the result.
MS. ALCINDOR: And meanwhile, on Capitol Hill at least 21 senators have expressed their support for a new bipartisan infrastructure proposal. That includes 11 Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he is open to the deal if it doesn’t reverse Trump-era tax cuts.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) Put me down as listening and hopeful that somehow, some way we’ll be able to move forward with an infrastructure bill.
MS. ALCINDOR: Garrett, I want to come back to you. Some White House sources tell me that a bipartisan deal is now more likely, there’s more of a chance of it now that President Biden – or I should say before – since before President Biden left. What do you make of that, and is – and what’s the latest on infrastructure?
MR. HAAKE: Well, look, I think it wouldn’t surprise anyone at this table and Kaitlan as well that the president is extremely eager to come up with a bipartisan deal if there is one to be had here, and the fact that there are so many Republicans who are in play on this suggests that it’s possible, but I’m glad you called it a proposal and not a bill because right now we don’t know exactly what this will cost, exactly how it would be paid for. The White House has already thrown out some of the ideas that Republicans had suggested as a way to pay for this, and for every Republican you bring on, you know, this week was interesting because progressives also found their voice on saying, wait, wait, wait, we had other priorities, too, Mr. President, like climate, like the care economy that we wanted to see a part of, too, so don’t go too far the other direction and set our priorities aside. Are we closer to a bipartisan deal than we were before the president left? Absolutely. But are we close in any real term to something being put on paper and passed through two houses of Congress? Not yet.
MS. ALCINDOR: Kaitlan, we only have 10 seconds left but I want to just come to you. What are you hearing about whether the White House is going to back this deal?
MS. COLLINS: I think it’s cautious optimism right now. President Biden has said that Ron Klain, who – his chief of staff, who stayed back, did – was part of those negotiations, has been briefed on it, is kept abreast of it, and feels like there is potentially some room there, but as President Biden said today he is not actually going to look at that proposal, which Garrett noted is not final, until Monday, so really we don’t know yet.
MS. ALCINDOR: And that’s all the time we have tonight. Thank you to Kaitlan, Pete, and Garrett for sharing your reporting, and thank you for joining us.
And before we go on this very first Juneteenth federal holiday, some touching news: This week New York City announced that it will name a park after former Washington Week moderator Gwen Ifill. The park is located in Gwen’s native borough of Queens, New York. Gwen was a mentor to me, and it is amazing and touching to see her legacy continuing to be honored.
Thank you again for watching. Make sure to join us for the Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 Eastern on YouTube, Facebook, and our website. I’m Yamiche Alcindor, a little jetlagged but happy to be here. Good night from Washington.