Full Episode: President Joe Biden’s First Overseas Trip

Jun. 11, 2021 AT 8:25 p.m. EDT

President Biden is on his first trip abroad, promoting democracy as he meets with the G7 ahead of a meeting next week with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The panel discussed the challenges abroad, as well as Vice President Harris’s trip to Central America to deal with immigration. Ed O'Keefe of CBS News co-moderates.

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

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: President Biden and Vice President Harris go global.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The United States is back.

MS. ALCINDOR: President Biden on his first overseas trip as head of state. His primary goals: reaffirming European alliances and trust in American democracy. Meeting first with the British prime minister and then with the G-7, NATO, and the European Union. Later, a one-on-one with the Russian president.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: (From video.) Do not come. Do not come.

MS. ALCINDOR: Plus, Vice President Harris heads to Central America to focus on immigration and faces scrutiny from all sides, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.

MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Yamiche Alcindor, reporting from Cornwall, England. I’m here traveling with President Biden during his first foreign trip as commander in chief, and he has a lot on his agenda and a lot to work through after his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, strained relationships with our European allies. Now, there’s going to be a lot of focus on the state of democracy in the U.S. and around the world and a lot of talk about how U.S. adversaries like Russia and China are feeling emboldened.

Now I want to bring in our friend Ed O’Keefe, senior White House correspondent and political correspondent for CBS News. He’s there in our studio in Washington, D.C. keeping the moderator’s seat warm for me. Thanks so much for being here, Ed.

ED O’KEEFE: Hey, Yamiche. So great to be here. We miss you, but glad you’re able to join us tonight.

And Vice President Kamala Harris was also abroad, as I saw firsthand this week traveling with her. She faced challenges as she visited Central America in hopes of addressing the root causes of migration.

Joining us tonight with more on all of these stories are three essential reporters covering it all: Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; and joining me here in the studio, Anna Palmer, founder of Punchbowl News, a political newsletter, and host of the Daily Punch podcast; and Vivian Salama, national security reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

But first, Yamiche, let’s turn to you. Ultimately, what is President Biden hoping to accomplish on this trip, and what have we learned so far about how he’s going to do that?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, President Biden really wants to reaffirm the ties that the U.S. has to our European allies. A lot of these European leaders were traumatized because former President Trump really did have a lot of hostility toward NATO and G-7. He even openly questioned whether or not these organizations needed to exist. So there’s a lot of strain there. And I’ve been talking to White House officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. They say that the way that President Biden is really going to try to reassure our allies is going to be showing action, and you already see the U.S. now pledging 500 million COVID-19 doses of the vaccine to struggling nations. That’s also going to become coupled with the G-7 together donating 1 billion. So what you see there – billion doses, that is – so what you see there is the Europe – Europe and the U.S. trying to work together to try to reassure the world that we are, in fact, working together. I will say, though, that these vaccine donations, they aren’t going to be happening overnight, they aren’t going to be happening for some time, and they did come with the U.S. facing a lot of pressure to do more on the global stage when it came to vaccine doses.

MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah, the incredible thing about that timeline is that most of the world may not see a vaccine in their arm until next Spring, one of the incredible developments of this week. But you know, he’s in the U.K. now, Yamiche; he heads to Brussels after that; but everyone’s waiting for this meeting with President Putin next week. What are the most important issues at stake as the American and Russian leaders meet?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, this is going to be an eight-day, three-country trip for Joe Biden, President Biden, but the big show, as you said, the big event is going to be in Geneva, Switzerland, when he meets with the Russian president, and there are a lot on the agenda there. The thing that President Biden wants to keep saying is that he’s going to have a firmer tone with Putin than his predecessor, Donald Trump, did, who really was seen as very cozy to the Russian president. President Biden is going to be wanting to talk about human rights. He’s going to be talking about ransomwares and hacks that were carried out by criminal gangs reportedly stationed in Russia, so there’s going to be a lot of talk about that. And European leaders are really watching this and trying to understand how European allies can really trust the U.S. again, and the stance against Russia is going to be a key thing that they’re going to be looking at going forward.

MR. O’KEEFE: Here in Washington, Vivian, this is all coming as President Biden is trying to draw lines in the global battle between democracy and authoritarianism. This is actually something he speaks about quite frequently, right?

VIVIAN SALAMA: That’s right, this has been sort of the overarching frame of his foreign policy agenda as he’s come into office, is talking about the need for democracies to work together to kind of confront this rising sense of authoritarianism in the world with Russia and China sort of looming in the backdrop of that description. And of course, one of the things that he's really worked to do is to try to get allies on the same page, and he talks the talk, certainly, that the Europeans want to be hearing about multilateralism, supporting NATO, supporting the G-7, something that his predecessor, Donald Trump, you know, he would kind of throw peanuts at them but not so much embrace these organizations, you know, wholeheartedly, and so he is certainly there and making allies a lot more comfortable.

But two things we’re going to be looking at in the coming days and months to come: Do we get deliverables from the trip? We see vaccines coming out now. Certainly, these countries are going to be working together. But also, President Biden, despite the fact that he talks the talk, there’s going to be a lot of really tough issues to get over. The Germans don’t agree with him on a Russian pipeline that’s going to Germany and it’s a very, very controversial issue right there. That’s something that they’re going to have a hard time discussing. President Macron of France also pushing back on this idea of a united crackdown on China; he says that that is a really risky move. And so those are a couple of issues that you’re going to be looking for as the president tries to kind of pursue this policy of his.

MR. O’KEEFE: It’s always fascinating when they all get together because they’re also all in different political cycles. Some have just won, some are getting ready for reelection, some are leaving like Chancellor Merkel, so always makes for fascinating theater.

Jonathan, while the president’s abroad there are fresh headlines back here at home reminding the world of what it used to be like. The New York Times was first to report that Justice Department officials were seeking the phone records of Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee. These reports of authoritarian-style moves against the former president’s critics seemed to throw a wrench a bit into the president’s push to promote democracy, especially since it’s now Biden’s Justice Department that’s cleaning this up, right?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, and you hear this or certainly our government hears it all the time from our allies and adversaries abroad, Ed, which is how dare you lecture us when democracy is sliding in your own country, and this will be the kind of thing that people abroad seize on again, even our friends, and certainly our adversaries, to say that, you know, clean up your own house – your own mess, and it does create challenges. Biden clearly wants to move on from President Trump, but this is the kind of thing that Democrats are – especially on the Hill are going to want accountability over. And for Republicans who want to move on from Trump, this is just one more piece of evidence that it’s going to be difficult for them to do that given what happened in the last four years and given the fact that much of their base, Ed, doesn’t want to move on from President Trump; they still view him as the leader of their party. So, bottom line, the long shadow of Donald J. Trump still looms here in mid-June of 2021.

MR. O’KEEFE: And as that shadow looms, Anna, specifically in the wake of these reports, what is Congress planning to do? How is it responding to all this?

ANNA PALMER: Yeah, it’s not just going to go away. It’s not going to be a story that just disappears, right? We’ve already seen Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as Senator Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, calling for former Attorney Generals Jeff Sessions, Bill Barr to testify, and saying even if they don’t testify they plan to try to subpoena them. Of course, in the Senate it always comes down to this 50-50 Senate where power is, you know, fleeting, and so they need to find at least one Republican to support that. If not, I think that they’ll punt it over to the House, which clearly doesn’t have those same issues, an investigation will happen there. And I do think what’s interesting to just note is the fact that you’ve already heard from the Biden Justice Department; they are clearly trying to draw a line in the sand to say that was President Trump, we are a different unit entirely, and they’re now saying we would like the IG to do an investigation. That’s not going to be enough for Capitol Hill, but that’s going to happen in tandem.

MR. O’KEEFE: The IG being the inspector general of the Justice Department, yeah, and they’ve had to play cleanup and sort of put to bed what the Trump administration was up to, and a really striking report, again, as the president tries to talk about democracy versus autocracy and as he is in the United Kingdom through Sunday before he heads on to Brussels and Geneva next week. After a stop to meet NATO leaders, Biden is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting comes amid tensions over Russia’s treatment of political opponents, its actions in Ukraine, and recent hacks into U.S. infrastructure. On Wednesday, the president previewed the summit. Here’s what he said.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way when the Russian government engages in harmful activities.

MR. O’KEEFE: And late Thursday former President Donald Trump issued an extraordinary statement recalling his own meeting with President Putin, claiming that in 2018, quote, “The United States won much.” He wished luck to President Biden, adding, quote, “Don’t fall asleep during the meeting and please give my warmest regards.” Yamiche, the former president clearly trying to overshadow the current president, how on earth is that playing over there as these meetings get underway?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, it really underscores President – former President Trump’s comments here. It really underscores that Joe Biden has a lot of work to cut for him. Now, you have, of course, Jonathan talking about this long shadow of President Trump still looming here, and that is really true because it underscores that 75 million Americans still supported President Trump – former President Trump, even after all of the things that we saw, all the unpredictability, during these NATO and G-7 meetings. So there really is this feeling among European leaders that they don’t know if they can really trust where American democracy is.

I’ve been talking to experts who say it could take several election cycles for people to really see American democracy as going back to the Joe Biden vision of the world. That said, this is a high-stakes meeting, right? This is Joe Biden, in some ways, giving stature to President Putin here, making the case that he wants to meet with him one-on-one. He got big cheers here in the U.K. when he landed and told U.S. troops that he wanted to tell Vladimir Putin the things that he came to tell him. Even though there were no details there, he was really implying that he was going to take a firm stance against the Russian president.

And I remember being in Helsinki, Finland when President Trump stood before reporters and said he believed the Russian president over U.S. intelligence agencies when it came to meddling in U.S. elections. So that’s the work that Joe Biden has to work through. He has to change that tone. And we’re going to see a changed tone here. But I think U.S. officials, especially White House officials that I talk to, they’re trying to lower expectations for what might come out of this meeting, and you’re also hearing that this really – the real goal here is for Joe Biden to just really underscore that the U.S. is strong, that even though things might have shifted during the Trump era, that America is back. So there’ll be real questions afterwards, but President Biden has a very clear agenda here.

MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah, Vivian, I kept hearing the White House national security advisor say this week: They’re meeting because they’re in disagreement, because there are things to discuss in person, not because he’s trying to elevate him and thinks of him as a friend. But Putin does seem to be, in essence, trolling Biden ahead of the meeting. There’s this Russian court decision that outlaws opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his political party. There are reports that Russia’s getting ready to sell Iran some satellite technology. This is clearly designed to sort of rattle the United States ahead of this meeting. How are they responding to it all?

MS. SALAMA: It cannot be stated enough at how shrewd President Putin is as a negotiator and just his general tactics. Remember, he is a former KGB official, and he is very, very good at sort of figuring out who the person who’s going to be at the other side of the negotiating table is. So he is basically trolling, very intentionally, President Biden ahead of this meeting to show, you know what, I can do whatever I want and it’s not up to you to tell me how to run my country.

And so the way that President Biden is going about this, and the way that a lot of the European allies that we have is looking at this, is that China is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that the U.S. – that the world faces. But right now Russia is the biggest threat. And so President Biden is getting a lot of pushback about this meeting, saying, you know, you’re dignifying his actions and you should not be meeting with him. But he says it’s because he’s the biggest threat that we need to meet face-to-face, so that he can confront him on issues like election meddling, like cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and on government software.

And so whether or not they come out with any agreements or not, it remains to be seen. President Biden really likes to stress that he had a relationship with President Putin before coming to office. He was the most skilled at foreign policy, he used to say on the campaign, and so we’ll see if that translates to real results with Russia to ease the tensions right now.

MR. O’KEEFE: They’re not allies. They’re not enemies. Is frenemies fair, or is it something worse than that?

MS. SALAMA: (Laughs.) I mean, you could – you could call it that, but really the way that the administration is framing it is that they are competitors who we want to cooperate with, and same goes for China.

MR. O’KEEFE: Let’s turn to Vice President Kamala Harris on this side of the globe this past week. I was with her as she made her first trip out of the country since taking office. She traveled to Guatemala and Mexico as part of her mission to address the root causes of migration to the United States. As U.S. officials continued to struggle with processing the sharp uptick in the number of unaccompanied children coming across the border, Harris issued a sharp warning to people considering migrating.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: (From video.) I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come.

MS. ALCINDOR: Ed, I wanted to jump in here. You were traveling with the vice president, as you said. What was the reaction to her comments and her visit on the ground?

MR. O’KEEFE: I think there’s actually been more comment here domestically to that, and yet there was some gratefulness among Guatemalan leaders for what she said so clearly. In an interview I had done with that country’s president over the weekend he said that the change in administration here in Washington had led to a change in the message, and it was exploited by human traffickers or the so-called coyotes that can charge families thousands of dollars to take children or adults up to the border. He said, you know, when the message was: We’re going to reunite families and we’re going to do things differently than Trump did, the president said that the coyotes exploited that, took advantage of it. And this clearer message was designed to dissuade people from going.

The other thing is that she clearly passed the test of whether she could be on the world stage and engage other leaders. The issue perhaps was that there was some botched commentary on other issues regarding her travels, and – you know, and so that’s what’s caused some of the follow-up. But ultimately, also, the Biden administration laid out very clearly what it plans to do to try to stem the flow, and I think that gives us some measurables to sort of grade them by in the coming months and years if the flow of migrants continues.

MS. ALCINDOR: And, Anna, what’s been the reaction in D.C., and especially on Capitol Hill?

MS. PALMER: Yeah, to Ed’s point, I think the actual fervor over what the Biden administration is doing on the border just continues, right? From the beginning, the Biden administration has really struggled with this. They then gave the political hot potato to the vice president, and you have everybody criticizing her from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left, saying her comments were disappointing, to Ted Cruz, who continues to rail on the administration saying they don’t have a plan for what to do next. And so I think the real question is going to be what measurables do they actually have. Do they actually take some kind of action? And do the – does the Hill feel like they’re getting the real information from the administration that the numbers are going down, that they have an actual plan going forward?

MR. O’KEEFE: Thanks, Yamiche. Thanks, Anna. And, Jonathan, to pick up on this point I want to turn to you, because I think part of the criticism’s been generated by her answer to a question in an interview with NBC Nightly News’ Lester Holt, when he asked her why she hasn’t been the U.S.-Mexico border. Here’s what she said.

LESTER HOLT: (From video.) Do you have any plans to visit the border?

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: (From video.) I’m here in Guatemala today. At some point – you know, we are going to the border. We’ve been to the border. So this whole – this whole – this whole thing about the border, we’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.

LESTER HOLT: (From video.) You haven’t been to the border.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: (From video.) And I haven’t been to Europe.

MR. O’KEEFE: As Anna said, in the wake of this trip she’s been slammed by members of both parties. Jonathan, why does this remain such a hot topic in Washington?

MR. MARTIN: Well, I think that clip right there is going to be the main takeaway for a lot of folks in politics from her trip. Perhaps not her interlocutors in Latin America, but certainly in terms of the domestic consumption. I think that’s going to be it. And I think the VP’s folks know that. They regret that exchange. I think if you peel back the onion there, Ed, her reaction – her obvious frustration I think reflects ongoing tensions within the Democratic Party in this sense of she does not want to be perceived as being the border czar, and that is the perception.

And at times, I think the frustration is because even internally in the administration, that’s how this is perceived, that sort of Kamala’s handling the border. And I think what you saw there was her trying to sort of redirect that, keep it focused on Central America, which is actually her precise job. But that has often been perceived differently. And I think that drove the reaction there. And I think that’s why she’s frustrated, wanting to say emphatically that she’s focused on the flow of migrants from Central America, not the U.S.-Mexico border – which is I think what she was trying to get at there. But obviously a moment that she would take back if she could, Ed.

MR. O’KEEFE: Probably. Vivian, this do not come, do not come – legally some people actually can come, right?

MS. SALAMA: Migrants have a right under U.S. law to seek asylum. And so that was the – that was the concern by NGOs and human rights groups, is that her message undermined that.

MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah, and Anna, there’s a host of issues still being talked about up on Capitol Hill. There’s the infrastructure talks that are slogging along, there’s police reform talks, the Senate’s now starting to work its way through federal judges, but immigration is actually something that both the House and the Senate are still working on, even if it isn’t a top-tier issue.

MS. PALMER: Yeah, and it has been one of the kind of thorny issues, obviously, in Washington for a very long time. I covered it years ago when it was John McCain in the room trying to find a way forward on this. What has been interesting is it kind of really has been put to the front burner for Democrats around DREAMers, right? This week alone Senator Dick Durbin did pull together that bipartisan group that has been meeting in the Senate. I’ve spoken to him about this before. He’s very clear-eyed about the problems and the struggles that they’re going to have to try to get together any kind of a deal. What is a shift, I think, for Democrats here is they used to say we’re only going to do comprehensive, and it was everything and the kitchen sink that had to be a part of it, which made it always so difficult. Now I think they are trying to figure out how to thread the needle on border security funding, DREAMers, and some of the other provisions where they feel like they could potentially get a deal. That all being said, I’ll just say, Ed, I mean, I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for them to try to find a pathway forward right now. Republicans in the Senate in particular, led by Mitch McConnell of course, are not looking to cut a lot of deals and give Democrats a win on this, particularly ahead of the midterm election when they think it’s a 50-50 Senate, they’ve got as good a shot as any that they could get power back.

MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah, and it’s amazing that eight years later they’re still talking about border security plus something for the DREAMers because that’s what they nearly got back in 2013. You know, Yamiche, vice presidents get handed the tough assignments all the time, but just as she was getting ready to go to Central America the president dropped the voting rights fight in her lap. I mean, it’s a tough time to be Kamala Harris.

MS. ALCINDOR: That’s right, Vice President Harris dealing with immigration has been a really, really thorny thing on her agenda. She’s been trying to make sure that she’s not seen as the border czar, that she’s really dealing with the root causes of migration, but it’s really in some ways lost in translation, and the GOP, you see them really trying to exploit the murkiness of this. And when it comes to, of course, voting rights, the White House insists that she was the one who requested this from President Biden, she wanted to deal with voting rights, but it’s an issue that, of course, is very, very complicated. You have in the Senate a Senate Democrat, Joe Manchin, saying that he is not going to be supporting the For the People Act. There’s real questions about what kind of voting law can be passed through Congress. So that is something that the White House is continuing to get questions about because not only will it be something, of course, that is the heart of the American democracy with GOP lawmakers trying to pass laws to restrict voting all over the country, there’s also the question of the 2022 midterms. Can Democrats win still if you have Republicans who are not just trying to suppress the vote, critics would say, but are also trying to nullify the vote? So big, big things on the vice president’s agenda, and she, her office says, is ready for this challenge, but it is a big challenge ahead.

MR. O’KEEFE: It sure is. Well, Yamiche, thank you for that. That’s all the time we have for tonight, but we have to leave you a few minutes early in order to allow you to support your local PBS station. Please do. Thanks to Jonathan, Anna, and Vivian for their insights, and thanks to Yamiche for the opportunity to sit here this week. It’s been a pleasure copiloting this transcontinental edition of the broadcast. Yamiche will be back here in Washington next week. I’m Ed O’Keefe. Good night from Washington.


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