GWEN IFILL: This week’s puzzle: sorting out the politics of Ukraine, health care and campaign money, and the scourge of domestic terrorism, tonight on “Washington Week.”
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: (From clip.) We agreed today that all illegal armed groups must be disarmed, that all illegally seized buildings must be returned to their legitimate owners and all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.
MS. IFILL: Diplomats may have agreed, but that’s clearly not the end of the story. With Russian troops still massed at the border and Ukrainian government supporters holding ground, the standoff is far from over.
In Washington, the president stakes out new aggressive political ground on health care. With 8 million signups, he said, Democrats should be boasting.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) I don’t think we should apologize for it., and I don’t think we should be defensive about it. I think there is a strong, good, right story to tell.
MS. IFILL: On the money front, super PACs rule the day, raising money for 2014 candidates at an astonishing clip.
And after yet another deadly and random attack, this time in Kansas.
MS. : (From clip.) They didn’t feel anything. They didn’t know what was coming. They were ambushed.
MS. IFILL: Law enforcement struggles with what to do next.
Covering the week, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Molly Ball of the Atlantic, Matea Gold of The Washington Post and Pete Williams of NBC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Cold war, civil war, propaganda war: All three are underway to some degree right now in Ukraine. And even though his secretary of state is the one at the negotiating tables in Geneva, President Obama seemed skeptical that there is anything anyone can do to achieve real peace.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) Our strong preference would be for Mr. Putin to follow through on what is a glimmer of hope coming out of these Geneva talks. But we’re not going to count on it until we see it. And in the meantime, we’re going to prepare what our other options are.
MS. IFILL: But Mr. Putin does not seem to care much for President Obama’s “strong preferences,” which wedges the U.S. between yet another rock and another hard place. Are we out of diplomatic solutions, Peter?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, this reminds you of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon where he says, hey Rocky, watch me pull this rabbit out of my hat. There is not rabbits in this hat. And within 24 hours of this diplomatic breakthrough being sealed in Geneva, you’re already seeing it fall apart, basically. There is no signs yet that the pro-Russian militants are withdrawing. They say, look, we don’t actually answer to Moscow. That’s a debatable point, but for the moment, anyway, they’re standing put. And at the White House, they’re watching nervously. They don’t think this is necessarily going to lead to a permanent, durable solution, and they’re trying to figure out what comes next.
MS. IFILL: By the way, I can’t get enough of Boris and Natasha, or Rocky Bullwinkle references.
MR. BAKER: I didn’t bring that part up. (Chuckles.)
MS. IFILL: You didn’t bring that part up.
Let me ask you, though, the part of this agreement they came up with is that everybody – that illegal armed groups would step down, but there is a different definition on either side of what constitutes an illegal armed group.
MR. BAKER: Exactly. Exactly. The Russians are talking about this group called Right Sector, which is a very right-wing part of the coalition that pushed out their favored president, Yanukovych, in February, and so they’re talking about the current government in Kiev in effect having to tame its own extremist forces, as it would put it. And of course, what John Kerry is talking about are the ones who are – who are causing the trouble in eastern Ukraine. So it’s an agreement where everybody can think that they got what they want, but in fact, it doesn’t seem to have necessarily led to anything beyond the nice words on a page yet.
MOLLY BALL: And Peter, it seems like the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have struck a slightly different tone when it comes to this matter. What is the sort of dynamic within the administration?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I know, I think it’s exactly right. Kerry emerged from six hours of talks with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, the European chief and the Ukrainian foreign minister, and he presented a much more optimistic, not over-the-top optimistic, but a more positive view of what had happened. I suppose if you spend six hours trying to get an agreement and get people to sign to it, you got to feel some confidence in it.
Back here in Washington, that wasn’t President Obama’s point of view. And I think he feels like, to use the cartoon metaphor again, Charlie Brown and that football, right? You know, this has happened before. The Russians have said, you know, we don’t believe we’re going to annex Crimea; suddenly they annex Crimea. We’re not threatening to destabilize eastern Ukraine; they’re destabilizing eastern Ukraine. So he’s got a healthy dose of cynicism about it. And that does indicate how the administration is pulled apart right now between those who are favoring a more diplomatic solution and those who are favoring a little bit more action.
MATEA GOLD: So Peter, what does happen next if Russia does not live up to its side of the bargain? What unfolds from here?
MR. BAKER: Right. Well, administration officials today are saying it’s going to be a matter of days, not weeks, in terms of whether they make a decision on how this agreement is holding up. And if they don’t see progress, they say they’re going to move forward with sanctions. Now, what they’re talking about are more travel bans and asset freezes of individual Russian figures and maybe a couple Russian institutions like the bank they already sanctioned. They’re not talking about the broader, more crippling kind of sanctions they’ve used against Iran, against whole sectors of the Russian economy, because they want to hold that in reserve in case they need to because Russia’s actually invaded Ukraine; they need to have something left over. But there’s a question about whether those actually will mean anything because so far, President Putin hasn’t seemed to be very impressed by them.
PETE WILLIAMS: There was a letter that surfaced this week that was sort of horrifying that supposedly was sent to Jews in Ukraine saying they should report themselves and list their possessions. Has it been determined now that that was the – a real thing, or was it a hoax? And if so, whose side did it come out of?
MR. BAKER: Well, both sides are saying it came from the other, of course. The People’s Republic of Donestk – this is the self-proclaimed, unrecognized, you know, rump group of people who have taken control of that eastern city’s government building – says it had nothing to do with it. The pro-Russian side says it’s actually the “fascists,” as they call them, in Kiev, the pro-European new government there.
And either way, what it tells you is this is a very volatile situation, a very dangerous situation. Susan Rice today came out, the president’s national security adviser, said it was utterly sickening, these flyers, and the president was disgusted by them. And it – and I think it hints at potential uglier moments to come, and that’s the fear in that particular part of the world where there is so much experience with that kind of thing.
MS. IFILL: Vladimir Putin is – was talking this week about “new Russia,” which is to be taken to be those independent – those parts of Ukraine which are on the Russian border, on the eastern part, which he still thinks will – should never have been independent, obviously. So what is the – what vested interests does he have ever in de-escalation? And why do we – did ever – why did we ever believe he had an investment in this deal that was struck in Geneva?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, somebody compared it to 2001 when George W. Bush had basically toppled the Taliban and had to decide whether to go further in terms of Iraq. And in effect, the argument is that Putin has the same kind of choice: Do you pocket your win in Crimea and then, you know, go home, in effect, or do you keep pushing and pushing and see how far it goes? And, you know, he does feel like he’s winning right now. His popularity is 80 percent. They’re feeling an economic pinch, but that doesn’t seem to be bothering them as a matter of politics. And he feels like he’s got the West at a disadvantage.
MS. IFILL: Ah, and so this goes on. Thank you, Peter.
Now to domestic politics. The president came into the White House briefing room yesterday knowing he would get questions about Ukraine, but he had a little crowing to do first: 8 million people have now signed up on Affordable Care Act health exchanges, 35 percent of those are under 35, and the industry – and the insurance industry is beginning to agree with him that in his word, this thing is working. This is where the politics comes in.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) I find it strange that the Republican position on this law is still stuck in the same place that it has always been. They said nobody would sign up. They were wrong about that. They said it would be unaffordable for the country. They were wrong about that. They were wrong to keep trying to repeal a law that is working when they have no alternative answer for millions of Americans.
MS. IFILL: The president went on to go after states which also haven’t expanded Medicaid to allow more people to sign up to get coverage.
Molly, why did the president decide now to go on the political offensive like this?
MS. BALL: Well, I think there is a feeling now in the White House that the facts are on their side. There was a lot of jitters. You know, obviously, we all know what a terrible debacle the website rollout was. And it was really touch-and-go for a while there. It wasn’t clear that they were going to get the signups. There – it was thought that maybe a lot of people would be prevented or deterred from signing up by the rollout. But when it became clear that – you know, the CBO projection originally was 7 million. They lowered it to 6 million when the rollout was such a – was such a disaster. And now we’ve got 8 million. And so there is a – there is a feeling that they have ammunition to make the case to the American people that, in the president’s word, this thing is working.
I think also a lot of Democrats behind the scenes have been begging them to do this because they really feel like they can’t make an affirmative case if the administration itself has almost seemed to be running away from it.
MS. IFILL: I haven’t seen a lot of Democrats clamoring to make the affirmative case. They seem to be hiding under the bed.
MS. BALL: Yes, that’s true too. And so there are cross pressures on the White House. The Democrats don’t want to do it themselves. They want the president do to it. They want the president to do out and sell it. And then, you know, some of them are running away from the president. But there is a feeling too that they have an ability to persuade people now because there is apparently such enthusiasm among people to sign up. And so far we’re not hearing the horror stories that they really feared that they would be having.
And, you know, there is a still a lot we don’t know. There – and you’ll hear a lot of these questions from the Republicans: Are these people paying their premiums? Are rates going to go up? What about all the parts of the law that have been deferred or delayed – many of them until, conveniently, after the election? Will – when those kick in, will there – will there be further problems?
MR. WILLIAMS: When will we know whether this was really a good idea or not?
MS. BALL: Probably we will never know, Pete, because people are still fighting over the New Deal, right? But there is – (laughter) – but there is – but there is a sense that I think, like the New Deal or like Medicare, that at some point – and this is what Republicans have been afraid of – that at some point, a social program is depended on by enough people, is entrenched enough in the – in the fabric of American life that it is impossible to take it away. And you have some conservative commentators now already saying Republicans can’t repeal this thing because it would mean taking away health care for millions and millions of people, and so they need to take a different tack, have a different message than just get – do away with it.
MR. BAKER: Has that changed, public attitudes, yet? I mean, because it’s been pretty relentlessly negative for so long. Is the public coming around on this? Is it beginning to think of it in a different way other than the way it has, or –
MS. BALL: Well, yes and no. Public opinion is still relentlessly negative. A majority of the public has an unfavorable opinion of “Obamacare.” However, it’s gotten a little bit better since November – it sort of couldn’t get any worse – just based on the facts. And I think that that suggests also that people had an open enough mind about this thing that when it looked really bad, they turned against it, and the administration’s hoping that now that things look a little bit better, those same people may be persuadable, be able to come around. So –
MS. IFILL: So the president’s pitch on – earlier this week was not only to Democrats, and it wasn’t just poking the Republicans, but it was also trying to speak to these people who are persuadable that maybe this wasn’t such a terrible thing.
MS. BALL: That’s absolutely right. And, you know, the president’s popularity is not what it once was, and there may be a lot of people who aren’t listening to him anymore. But the administration’s hope is that the – that he still has a unique ability to speak to the American people, to make this affirmative case and really to go on offense. You know, there’s a feeling that Republicans had a window to make their case. There was a time when they really could have come in really strongly and proposed an alternative and made themselves the champions of some other kind of reform; they didn’t do that. And so now the administration can say, see, they don’t have anything, they don’t have an alternative.
MS. GOLD: Now – but Molly, do we see any sign yet that any vulnerable Democrat is champing this and putting up ads in swing states and saying, look what the president’s accomplished with me by his side?
MS. BALL: Well, another thing the Democrats have had –
MS. IFILL: That may be a lot to ask for. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: Another thing Democrats have had some angst about this, and as you know covering money and politics, is that there hasn’t been a big money group like the Republicans have with the Kochs to come in and make the Democrats’ case for them. There is an independent group in Alaska, in Mark Begich’s Senate race, that has a positive ad about “Obamacare” with a woman who’s a cancer victim who now has insurance, but that’s pretty much it. And meanwhile, you have zillions – is the technical term – (laughter) – of dollars in negative advertising pounding away at this idea that the law is a disaster. And most of those Democrats, vulnerable Democrats in red states, are putting distance between themselves and the president still, are making the case that they have been fighting this thing or fighting to change it; they are not rushing to the president’s side – (inaudible).
MS. IFILL: I noticed the White House has started posting videos of taking a shot backstage at presidential events, the latest one in Austin, Texas, of him meeting with people who say, thank you for saving my son’s life. And that looks almost like a template for ads we might see in the future; at least I’m sure that’s what Democrats are hoping.
Onto politics, part two. It’s one thing to know cash is driving our elections; it’s another thing to put cold, hard numbers to that premise. Political parties, independent political action committees and outside groups have already raised close to a billion dollars. And that’s just through the end of March. And that’s just among the groups that have to disclose their fundraising. So we assume, even with that limited understanding, there are early winners, and there are early losers in this, Matea.
MS. GOLD: Sure, so there are some very big winners. Super PACs, to be clear from the outset, are really raking in the cash. And we saw donors on both sides of the aisle write very big checks, seven-figure checks, to super PACs, both on the right and the left.
So on the left, what we’re really seeing now is this relentless drive of Harry Reid and other Democrats to talk about the Kochs and their financial advantage (seems ?) to have spurred some giving. So Senate –
MS. IFILL: Who are the conservative billionaire financiers –
MS. GOLD: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: – who have been writing a lot of Republican –
MS. GOLD: Exactly. So Democratic donors gave a lot to Senate Majority PAC, which is the Senate super PAC on the Democratic side. And that really I think validates probably Harry Reid’s belief that it’s worth it for him to spend all this time on the Senate floor and invoke the names of Charles and David Koch over and over again.
And on the right, we saw American Crossroads, which has had not been doing very good fundraising last year in the wake of their huge enormous cash flow in the 2012 elections; they really got back in the game in March and raised $5 million in a sign that conservative donors are really engaging now in the first time in this cycle.
So I think clearly outside groups are going to have an incredible imprint again on these midterms. We’re already seeing that outside spending has reached almost 55 million (dollars), and that’s compared to this point in 2010, that was only 15 million (dollars), so we really see how we’re on track to see the imprint of those organizations. And the losers probably, frankly, are the voters in a lot of these states who are already just getting bombarded, and it’s not even May.
MR. BAKER: (Chuckles.) What about the tea party challengers? They were such a force in a lot of these primaries early on in the – in the life of the tea party, of 2012 especially. What are we seeing this time around? Are they getting support? Are they becoming – are they penetrating these sort of financial areas or not?
MS. GOLD: It’s been really hard for them to be competitive. And I think what you’ve seen is a lot of discipline on the – on the part of the establishment, the business Republicans, to kind of rally the donors to their side and say, we have to beat back these folks, and don’t just give money – you saw some donors last time give money everywhere because they were trying to sort of see the field, and there’s been a lot less of that this time around.
MR. WILLIAMS: Are the political parties now just the poor relations in all of this?
MS. GOLD: Well, now that we have McCutcheon, the political parties are going to be able to raise more money than before. That’s going to allow them to raise money from donors who had been maxed out.
MS. IFILL: The Supreme Court ruling that you’re talking about, McCutcheon.
MS. GOLD: Yes, exactly, that happened a couple weeks ago. And so we have yet to see them really been able to collect on that promise, but I think that they’re already putting mechanics in place to be able to do so. But it’s really hard for them to compete in, you know, $30,000 increments, which is what you can give a political party, when someone can write a $4 million check to a super PAC.
MS. BALL: You had an interesting story this week about the fundraising clout of female Democratic candidates specifically. Is that something that’s made them particularly formidable?
MS. GOLD: Well, it’s interesting because we saw a lot of the female Democratic challengers do incredibly well in this fundraising period, and there is a lot of reasons for that. But one interesting factor is that EMILY’s List, which has always been a real fundraising machine for Democrats, is doing better than ever before, and they’re on track to break all kinds of fundraising records. So Democratic women who have their backing are having another source of money coming to them.
MS. IFILL: You know, we know what we know, which is these reports that were released this week, but we don’t know what we don’t know. Is there any way to measure the influence of all of this undisclosed money that we know is floating out there and influencing the process?
MS. GOLD: Yeah. I always try to describe to people like an iceberg that you can see a certain amount of the mountain of – that’s peeking above the water, but there’s a lot underneath the water we don’t know about, and we see glimpses of it. So for example, Americans for Prosperity, which is a conservative advocacy group, which is backed by the Kochs and other donors, they’ve already spent $34 million against vulnerable Democrats in these midterms; none of that money shows up in FEC reports. So there is a big chunk of money right there. And there is a new nonprofit organization affiliated with the Koch network, Freedom Partners, that last – in the last election really acted as kind of a funding source which is now directly engaging in ads as well, and they’ve already dropped more than a million dollars on ads. So we’ll see little glimpses of this.
MS. IFILL: So when you say ads, do we – are any of them like, this is a great guy or gal, vote for them? Or are they all really negative early ads?
MS. GOLD: Some are increasingly some positive spots. But I think when you talk to ad-makers, you’ll hear most of them say, you know, you get a lot more bang for your buck if you tear the other guy down. So we’re still – I think we’re going to see a preponderance of negative ads.
MS. IFILL: It’s going to be a fun couple years. (Muted laughter.) Thanks.
As we mark the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing this week, we also have to take in a fresh example of random deadly violence, this time at two Jewish community sites, in Overland Park, Kansas. But good luck trying to find any federal official who will say attacks like these that happened at Fort Hood or Oklahoma City or anywhere on our own soil are “terrorism.” I know. I tried. This was White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco on the “NewsHour” last night.
LISA MONACO: (From clip.) What we’ve seen is extremism comes in any number of forms. And it’s not confined to any one community. It’s not confined to any one individual of a particular faith. We need to respond to it and reject it regardless of faith, regardless of where it’s present.
MS. IFILL: When we hear the White House official talk about violent extremism but not talk about terrorism, is this a distinction without a difference? Is it just labeling?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, it’s partly just labeling, but it can make a difference. For example, if something is classified as “terrorism,” victims can qualify for certain benefits. But it’s true the federal government does tend to stick to a pretty strict definition, which is terrorism is an act of violence to intend to coerce the government to further a political or social cause.
Now, for example, it may surprise some people that the Boston Marathon bombing is not considered terrorism because there are no terrorism charges filed in that case, even though President Obama five days later did call it an act of terror. As for the shootings last weekend in Kansas City, the man – the suspect, Frazier Glenn Cross, he faces some state charges and some federal charges too, but they’re described as hate crime charges. So this all may seem rather random.
In a legal sense, describing it as terrorism doesn’t really make any difference. It’s how you charge it. But the fact is that it strikes I think a lot of people as odd. For example, the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 was –
MS. IFILL: Was going to ask you about – well, Nidal Hasan was – people were happy to call that terrorism, yes? No?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, no. No. It’s never been formally declared an act of terrorism by the United States government. There was a suggestion from the Defense Department that it was workplace violence. So that’s – that seems –
I think the one thing we can take away from this week is it’s a reminder that there is an underground of violent extremism in this country that we tend to forget about domestically because we focus so much on international terrorism.
MS. BALL: With regard to the Kansas City shooting, what is going to determine whether he faces federal in addition to state charges, and what kind of charges would those be?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the state’s already filed its charges, murder and capital murder, so he could face the death penalty. The federal government is really pursuing civil rights charges that make it a crime – that can be punished by the death penalty, by the way – for interfering with someone’s either federally protected right or freedom of religion. And at the end of the day, when both of those charges – I mean, he can’t be in two courthouses at once. They’re going to have to decide. Oftentimes there’s a clear federal or state interest. You think about the shooting of Gabby Giffords, for example, an obvious federal interest. Here’s it’s not so clear. So they’re just going to have to sit down and decide who goes first.
MR. BAKER: A year later one of the Tsarnaev brothers who was implicated in the Boston Marathon is still alive, in prison, in isolation, I gather, right, waiting for trial. What is his defense? What are they going to say if it comes to trial, his defense?
MR. WILLIAMS: We’ve been getting little hints of this in the court filings. And I must say, unusually in a case like this, so many of them are under seal, so we haven’t seen a lot of them. But his lawyers have suggested they’ll talk about the age. His older brother was 26; he was 19 when this happened. Similar strategy that we saw on the Washington sniper case, where Lee Boyd Malvo, who was only 17, escaped the death penalty; the older man, John Allen Muhammad, was executed. So they’ll talk a lot about his family background. They’ll say that his older brother was much more into jihad than he was and that he was dominated by his older brother. That’s the suggestion from what we’ve seen so far.
MS. GOLD: Now, the trial’s coming up, isn’t it? Are they actually going to have it in Boston, or are they going to seek a change of venue?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the trial date is November 3rd, and the defense has to say by mid-June whether it will seek a change of venue. And that’s not an easy one because on the one hand you’d say, yeah, you want to move it out of a city that was most traumatized by the attack. On the other hand, you’re in a city where the Boston Globe polls show a majority of people don’t favor the death penalty; they just want this over with. And Massachusetts is a state that did away with capital punishment. So you might move to a state where they look on the death penalty more kindly. So that’s not an easy thing to calculate.
MS. IFILL: You know, one of the things I find interesting whenever these things surface, the case of the – of the Kansas shooter, he was well-known in the circles that keep track of hate speech and crime, and he was active poster on these websites which foment this kind of conversation. But there is no way that the federal government, even knowing these people exist, can stop it before speech turns to action?
MR. WILLIAMS: Not unless you see some indicator that it’s going to happen. Remember, it’s OK to say under the First Amendment, you know, people ought to go out and shoot folks from Wyoming, my home state. But – that’s probably protected speech, but if you say, let’s go shoot somebody from Wyoming, well, that’s incitement to violence. So it’s a hard thing to know when someone crosses that line. Now, he, yes, had been in and out of the courts, and so he had been watched, but you never know.
MS. IFILL: You never know.
OK, well, thank you for that, and thanks, everybody else, as well. We are ending it here, but we’ll keep talking online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where we will parse through all the stories we didn’t get to, including the intriguing political rise of Republican Senator Rand Paul. That streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Keep up with daily developments with Judy Woodruff and me – that’s – I know her name – (laughter) – Judy Woodruff and me on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you right here against next week on “Washington Week.” Good night, and happy Easter.