Full Episode: President Biden Starts a Foreign Policy Shift

Apr. 16, 2021 AT 9:07 p.m. EDT

President Joe Biden announced a historic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, as protests erupt over the killing of Daunte Wright. The panel discussed the president’s foreign policy and the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Nancy Cordes of CBS News guest moderates.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

NANCY CORDES: America’s longest war is ending, but age-old problems linger on.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) It’s time to end America’s longest war.

MS. CORDES: President Biden announces all U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by September 11th.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We cannot allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process.

MS. CORDES: And he imposes tough new sanctions on Russia for hacking and election interference. But as the president pivots to foreign affairs, a domestic crisis is brewing in policing.

KATIE WRIGHT: (From video.) It was the worst day of my life. He called and said he just got pulled over by the police.

MS. CORDES: And the battle against the pandemic persists.

SURGEON GENERAL VIVEK MURTHY: (From video.) We are trying to figure out right now whether these unfortunate cases of clots are, in fact, related to the vaccine itself.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM JORDAN (R-OH): (From video.) What measures have to be attained before Americans get their First Amendment liberties back?


ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.

MS. CORDES: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Nancy Cordes.

President Joe Biden is dealing with the fallout of two ongoing crises in America, the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism. The federal government brought the use of one vaccine to a sudden halt this week over safety concerns, and as the trial of Derek Chauvin plays out we saw another death of a Black man at the hands of a police officer. Daunte Wright was killed Sunday just a few miles away from the spot where George Floyd died last year.

There is a lot to get to tonight, but first let’s cover the historic foreign policy moves by President Biden this week. On Wednesday he announced the end of the longest war in American history. All remaining American troops will be out of Afghanistan by September 11th, 2021, the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.

MS. CORDES: And Afghanistan’s not the only global issue confronting the president. Mr. Biden issued new sanctions against Russia yesterday and today he held his first in-person bilateral meeting, with the prime minister of Japan. So what do these moves tell us about Mr. Biden’s approach to foreign policy and what does it all mean for America’s global standing?

Well, joining us tonight to talk about all of it are four top Washington reporters: Eugene Daniels, White House correspondent for Politico and co-author of the Politico Playbook; Anne Gearan, White House correspondent for The Washington Post; Kasie Hunt, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and host of MSNBC’s Way Too Early; and Wesley Lowery, correspondent for 60 Minutes+ and my CBS News colleague. Welcome to all of you.

Anne, let’s start with you. So big picture, what did the foreign policy moves made by this president this week on Afghanistan, on Russia, on China tell us about the Biden doctrine and how he plans to handle foreign affairs as president?

ANNE GEARAN: Nancy, I think all of those things have in common that they are an attempt by the president to redirect American foreign policy resources toward Asia and toward China in particular. In Afghanistan, his argument is specifically tied to China. He said on Wednesday that it doesn’t make sense for the United States to continue to spend the amount of money and diplomatic effort and all kinds of other effort that goes with supporting the 20-year mission and 20-year war in Afghanistan for what essentially is an outdated and now increasingly irrelevant conflict. He said that everything we went to Afghanistan to do we’ve either – we’ve either already done or can accomplish in other ways. The terrorist threat we went there to vanquish has changed and he said it can be managed in other ways. He really didn’t address the stability of the Afghan government and whether or not there will be a peace deal with the Taliban going forward. That is the U.S. hope, but he was firm in saying that it is – really, the U.S. has to stick to its knitting here. It has to go and spend its time and energy where the priorities really are, which in his view is Asia. Obviously, that same argument is part of why the Japanese prime minister was here today. The Biden administration is quite pleased with the stronger tone that this Japanese administration is taking toward China. They want to link arms with the strongest U.S. ally in Asia and say not only will the – you know, going forward will the United States not give China a free pass in its own neighborhood, but they will also, you know, have a whole new set of Asian partners, revitalized Asian alliances that in the Biden view were let go fallow under Trump.

MS. CORDES: Yet, there are so many unknowns about the future of Afghanistan. Eugene, it wasn’t that long ago that President Biden himself was saying that it might be a good idea to keep a residual force in Afghanistan. We know some of his Pentagon advisors felt the same way, so why this reversal?

EUGENE DANIELS: Absolutely, and Anne talked about this a little bit, but part of what has changed is that domestically the administration feels there are even more problems than modern presidents have had to deal with, and the threats in the foreign policy space are even more complicated, they’re evolving. Like Anne said, a rising China, these tensions with Russia, they are taking precedence over what’s happening in Afghanistan. The Biden administration is betting that all of that money and all of that attention it could use – is better used there, and they’re also banking on more diplomacy. He talked about that, as well, even though the Taliban have already been reluctant or basically just flat out refused to deal with the government. And so now they have even less incentive, experts say, to negotiate with the U.S. troops because, you know, we’re about to leave. You also have a country that’s just tired of being over there, you know, 20 years in that country. They have heard multiple promises of, you know, getting rid of the forever wars from different presidents, this being one of them, and so there’s a lot of pressure from the American people for us to leave there, but it’s very risky. His own intel chiefs published this threat assessment saying that the government there would struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdrew. His own CIA chief in front of Congress this week said our ability to collect information and act on threats would diminish. So if there is this vacuum that we’ve seen in Iraq that occurs, it’s going to be owned by this administration because pulling out’s not going to magically stabilize the region there, and so it’s risky for Biden here.

MS. CORDES: Right, and you know, it’s interesting that you talk about war fatigue. Kasie, it seemed to me this week that the pushback on the president’s decision was kind of muted. I mean, yes, we saw the perfunctory statements from lawmakers who think that the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t as ferocious as what we saw last year when President Trump initially said that he wanted to remove troops.

KASIE HUNT: That’s right, Nancy, and I think it reflects some of the general exhaustion around this that you heard in President Biden’s voice when he gave that address from the very same place where President – former President George W. Bush had announced that we were going in in the first place. This has been our longest war, and the partisan lines on this are not as clear cut as perhaps they once were either. I mean, you certainly had hawks, Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, who said this was a bad idea, but you also had Democrats – specifically, the two Democratic senators from New Hampshire – raising some concerns about it. You also had Republicans like Senator Rand Paul and some others say, yeah, you know, actually, it’s a better idea that we go ahead and leave. So this isn’t something that is completely clear cut.

And you know, one thing I did hear over and over again as I spoke with sources this week on the Hill, especially those with ties to the military – whether those who served or those who have a large military presence in their states and districts – was that we should take a moment to stop and think about what this does mean to the troops on the ground because there are so many Americans who have spilled blood, sweat, tears in Afghanistan, and so many families back at home who’ve borne the burden of this war for so long, and it’s a relatively small group of our population, especially compared to past conflicts that really convulsed many more families and were more widely felt among all of us. So I think that’s also been something that’s on the minds of at least some of these lawmakers that I’ve been talking to, frankly, in both parties.

MS. CORDES: Right, the tens of thousands of injuries from this war alone. Wesley, I want to go back to something that Eugene talked about, the political risks and the rewards. I mean, obviously, there is a political upside for this president if he is the one who is finally able to end this long war. On the other hand, if Afghanistan sinks into a civil war or if the Taliban is resurgent, as many fear, what are the political risks for him there?

WESLEY LOWERY: Well, there certainly are risks, and as a general rule – and I don’t want to generalize too much – but Democrats have a particular vulnerability with Republicans who have spent years branding themselves as the supporters of the military, as the stronger of the two parties as it relates to those types of things, and so a Democrat making such a decision, were it to blow up on the back end, there could be some real blowback for President Biden.

But that said, I think one of the key things here – and this is what I think President Biden is betting on in making this decision, is that for the average American, the people who are going to vote next year to decide who controls Congress, people who are going to vote in three years to decide if President Biden – if he runs again – gets another term, he’s betting they see more eminent and more urgent threats in their lives, be it the pandemic, be it the economy because of the pandemic; even if it’s immigration, climate change, these issues of race we are talking about – unlike some past presidents where, among the electorate this idea of terror attacks was something that was an extremely high concern for so many Americans – that there is a unique moment we’re in where, perhaps for the first time post-9/11, we’re not seeing this fear of terrorism ranking among the top concerns of the Americans, in part because there is this massive global pandemic that has to rank pretty high for all of us.

MS. CORDES: Right, such a good point. Anne, I want to turn to Russia and this very interesting sort of carrot-and-stick approach that President Biden took this week with President Putin – on one hand issuing new sanctions, expelling Russian diplomats, but then on the other hand saying he doesn’t want to escalate tensions, and he actually wants to sit down and have a one-on-one meeting with President Putin this summer. What do you make of the strategy here?

MS. GEARAN: Well, I make of it that the president doesn’t want another distraction. He doesn’t want one more fight on his hands, and he is going to have to contend with Vladimir Putin on a number of fronts for as long as he is president. He doesn’t want to start out his presidency on the worst possible footing he can. So yes, I think your framing of carrot and stick is exactly right. He ran saying that he wouldn’t let Russia go unpunished, so he really had to follow through on – certainly on the election interference sanctions. That was a big one.

But he also wanted to make sure that it was clear that he is inviting Putin to have a different kind of relationship going forward; at the very least, not have to worst one that they could strike right from the get-go. And remember, too, that Putin is invited to the climate summit that the president is holding next week, which is really his big, marquee event, his first big, heavy lift on the world stage. He doesn’t want that to blow up. Certainly, he doesn’t want Putin to get credit or blame – or get credit while he gets the blame if it blows up. He’d like to have that go well. But certainly there – he’s getting a lot of criticism that he pulled some punches with the way he handled Russia this week.

MS. CORDES: Right, and Russia now retaliating with some sanctions – threatened sanctions of his own. Kasie, I want to ask you about this controversy that just bubbled up today: progressives furious after the White House announced that it would not be allowing more refugees into this country after all; that it was going to stick – at least for now – to this historically low cap that was set by the Trump administration. Now, after a few hours of blowback, it looks like they are reversing that. What exactly is going on here?

MS. HUNT: Nancy, this is an incredibly difficult issue for the White House because obviously the pictures – what we’ve seen on the southern border, the number of unaccompanied children coming has turned into a crisis in terms of trying to figure out how to care for all of them, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. And it’s an issue that Republicans have zeroed in on as a potential place to put political pressure on President Biden. And so this did come out earlier in the day, that they were going to leave this cap essentially where it was, and there was immediate backlash from progressives like Pramila Jayapal – Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, also from Senator Dick Durbin who, you know, had a line saying, you know, “President Joe, say it ain’t so.” He has been an immigrant advocate for a long time.

They seem to be a bit back on their heels, and since this all unfolded, the press secretary, Jen Psaki, has said that there is some confusion about this, that we may learn more about it later on in the month. But it seems clear the White House is nervous about giving Republicans any more opportunities on this, even though during the campaign – I mean, this was one of those things that Joe Biden – now President Biden – has explicitly cast as being about American values. And I think that’s part of why the feelings around this are so raw.

MS. CORDES: Right, and clearly a very predictable backlash here.

All right, switching gears to race and policing, in Minnesota, the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, for the killing of George Floyd, continues. Both side have now rested their cases and are expected to deliver their closing arguments starting on Monday. And last weekend, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot by Officer Kim Potter during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Potter has since resigned and has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. Here’s what Vice President Kamala Harris said on Tuesday about Wright’s death.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: (From video.) Our nation needs justice and healing, and law enforcement must be held to the highest standards of accountability. At the same time, we know that folks will keep dying if we don’t fully address racial injustice and inequities in our country from implicit bias to broken systems.

MS. CORDES: Wesley, you’ve been reporting on this issue since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. So what do the events in Minnesota tell us about the relationship between Black Americans and the police in 2021?

MR. LOWERY: Oh, you know, first of all, I think that what we’ve been reminded of is how this is an ongoing issue, even when we’re not paying attention, right – that during the Chauvin trial there was a high-profile shooting in Minneapolis. I think it can be easy for us to forget sometimes when there is not a case that folks are focused on that – according to the Washington Post’s fatal force project – three people are shot and killed by the police each day. And so this is an issue that is playing out in the heartland even when Washington is not focused on it.

It’s going to be remarkable to see what happens in the case of this trial. It was a fascinating trial – you know, talking to attorneys and experts, both who have defended officers as well as who have prosecuted them, they’ve really thought this has been a unique and fascinating legal proceeding just in terms of how these cases are tried. There’s a big question mark of is the populace at a place where it’s willing to convict a police officer, which is typically and historically very difficult. And even if that officer is convicted, what happens? Is he given a lengthy sentence or is he given a short sentence? Because, often, again, police officers don’t necessarily receive the same sentence as you or I were we to be convicted of the same crime.

But what I do think it shows is that these are still issues that are top of mind for many Americans, and specifically for many of the Americans who are part of the Joe Biden coalition that helped him get elected. We have to remember that we are having this conversation at a time where Joe Biden has still not been able to get through two of his major nominees to the Department of Justice to handle these types of issues, where there has not been major action from the administration – at least not yet – on issues of policing and criminal justice reform. And so this is something that – you know, we know that the Biden strategy has largely been to try to pass big, sweeping legislation on things that are broadly popular: infrastructure, COVID relief.

But what is happening here is the calendar – the news calendar is forcing a more divisive issue, one where Biden and his base – where Biden knows he’s going to have to service his base at some point – his base really cares about it – forcing it up in the calendar. So it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens next week and what response might come out of Washington.

MS. CORDES: And you know, when you talk about that news calendar that’s very crowded – a lot of different dates that seem to be taken up – Eugene, you know, you hear Vice President Harris talk about racial injustice this week, but what Black Americans want to see is action. And so what action can the Biden administration take? What action will it take? And how high on the agenda – how close in the calendar is action when it comes to race and policing for this administration?

MR. DANIELS: You know, one thing that has been frustrating as a reporter, when you are trying to ask this administration about certain things that they may not be focused on right at that moment – they are laser-focused and stay laser-focused on what they want to talk about, right? And you’ve been in those briefing rooms where, you know, when they want to talk about infrastructure that’s what they want to talk about, when they want to talk about the COVID relief bill that’s what they want to focus on. But since the transition the Biden team has pointed to kind of these four different crises that they see: the pandemic, the recession caused by that pandemic, climate change, and then these issues of systemic racism and equity in the country. So for them, they say that it’s high on the list. Like Wesley was saying, whether or not it gets up there is going to be the amount of attention that it gets. But there isn’t much that the White House can do unilaterally, right? It’s things like using the bully pulpit that we’ve seen both the president and the vice president there use multiple times this week, unfortunately, from both of them; and then there’s the Justice Department, which today scrapped a Trump policy that would essentially stop – which essentially stopped the use of consent decrees to tackle and try and fix police misconduct. So they’re trying to do things. The Biden administration has pointed out that they – you know, they’re kind of behind the ball mostly because of there was almost no movement in this space when it comes to the DOJ using its investigatory power on racist behavior by police officers in this country, but advocates and activists want more. The more that we’re going to see this happen, for Black and brown people this week has been really hard and really heavy. And you talked about the Daunte Wright case happening so close to Derek Chauvin’s trial, the video of Adam Toledo being released, and so people of color are feeling this. And so the Biden administration is going to start feeling a lot more pressure, Congress is going to start feeling a lot more pressure, and this is a space where Biden, because of who his base is, because of who put him in the White House – Black people – he’s going to have to do more than they’re seeing right now.

MS. CORDES: You know, and then some would argue, Kasie, that Congress needs to do more too. I mean, this is not a new issue for Congress, and there was big talk on the Hill months ago about possible negotiations between Democrats who have the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and Republicans who back this proposal by Tim Scott of South Carolina. Where do those talks stand, if anywhere?

MS. HUNT: Well, Nancy, you and I both covered that at the time. It was a very emotional and difficult period for the country, and certainly Capitol Hill was no exception to that. But the challenge, I think, is that even then, you know, Congress – control of Congress was split at the time, and Republicans said that the Democratic bill went way too far; Democrats said, you know what, yours doesn’t go nearly far enough; and ultimately, there was a stalemate. I think there were some Republicans like Utah Senator Mitt Romney who wanted to negotiate around this issue in good faith, was – he was, I know, personally disappointed by how those negotiations played out. But the politics of this I think make it very, very difficult to move forward, especially, quite frankly, with Democrats controlling both chambers now. We again go back to this idea that without 60 votes in the Senate it becomes almost impossible to do anything. So if that filibuster rule remains in place, that would mean that 10 Republicans would have to side with Democrats and say, yes, this is something that we want to do. And given how highly charged it is politically, given how this is likely to become a very highly charged, emotional issue in the midterm election campaign in swing states and districts, I have a very hard time seeing how there is any, ultimately, bipartisan agreement to move something forward on this. It’s just so fraught.

Now, of course, events could change this. I mean, the verdict in this trial, I think, could be a potentially very pivotal moment in our country, depending on what – as Wesley was just talking about, what the verdict is and how – whether or not there is a perception that justice has been done in the case of George Floyd. So I would hold that out there as something that could potentially change the course of this, but it’s still extraordinarily difficult.

MS. CORDES: So difficult. We only have a couple of minutes left, so, Anne, before we go, I would like to get an update from you on the J&J vaccine and where things stand. You know, at the start of the week Dr. Anthony Fauci said he thought the pause would only last a few days; well, it’s been a few days, so what’s happening now?

MS. GEARAN: Yeah, Nancy, the week ended – the work week ended without an announcement from the FDA and the CDC that the pause would be lifted or changed in any way. This is really a disappointment to a lot of health-care professionals who were relying on the J&J vaccine. It’s very uncertain ground at the moment. The J&J vaccine was really designed and intended to be used to fill an important part of the vaccine landscape. You know, as you say, it’s one shot. It also doesn’t need to be hyper-refrigerated, which makes it ideal for use in all kinds of places and among all kinds of populations that very much need that kind of flexibility and finality – one shot and you’re done. And it will be – it is – and the administration has not yet said, and it will be very difficult to really – for them to figure out how to do something else if the J&J vaccine is completely unavailable.

MS. CORDES: Right, well, we hope there’s a resolution soon. We’re going to have to leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Eugene, Anne, Kasie, and Wesley for their insights, and thank you for joining us. We will cover more on the Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 on our website, on Facebook, or on YouTube. I’m Nancy Cordes. Good night from Washington.


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