Full Episode: Foreign Threats and Domestic Divisions

Feb. 12, 2022 AT 9:21 a.m. EST

U.S. officials warned that the standoff between Russia and Ukraine is an escalating situation, that comes as the Pentagon has ordered 3,000 more American troops to deploy to Poland and President Biden is set to speak with Russia President Vladimir Putin on Saturday. And the National Archives asked the Department of Justice to investigate Former President Trump’s handling of White House documents.

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- Foreign threats and domestic divisions.

- An invasion could begin at any time.

- [Yamiche] The likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine increases.

- Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible.

- [Yamiche] As more American troops are set to deploy to the region. Meanwhile:

- These documents are the property of the United States, they're property of the American people.

- [Yamiche] New reporting about former President Trump's handling of top secret and classified documents. Plus:

- We saw what happened. It was a violent insurrection.

- The word insurrection is politically charged propaganda.

- [Yamiche] Republicans at odds over how to define the January 6 capital attack.

- The science is saying now that masks work, masks make a difference.

- [Yamiche] And Democrats debate mask mandates, next.

- [Announcer] This is "Washington Week." Corporate funding is provided by Consumer Cellular. Additional funding is provided by the estate of Arnold Adams, Koo and Patricia Yuen through The Yuen Foundation. Committed to bridging cultural differences in our communities. Sandra and Carl DeLay-Magnuson. Rose Hirschel and Andy Shreeves. Robert and Susan Rosenbaum. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you, thank you. Once again from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

- Good evening and welcome to "Washington Week." As of this hour, US officials are now warning that the standoff between Russia and Ukraine is an urgent situation and that President Putin could invade at any time. Russia has been conducting large scale military exercises on the Ukrainian border, President Biden has said Americans in Ukraine should leave now. He is set to speak to President Putin Saturday. That comes as the Pentagon has ordered 3000 more American troops to deploy to Poland. And this week President Biden spoke to NBC News's Lester Holt about the role of troops in the region.

- What scenarios would you put American troops to rescue and get Americans out?

- There's not, that's a world war. When Americans and Russia start shooting at one another we're in a very different world than we've ever been in.

- Joining me tonight to discuss all of this and more, Margaret Brennan, moderator of "Face the Nation" and chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News. Philip Rucker, deputy national editor for the Washington Post, and Vivian Salama, national security reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much, all of you, for being here. Margaret Brennan, I want to start with you first. Obviously now the region is bracing for a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia. What changed in the last few hours, the last few days, that really changed the urgency of this situation? And what do you know about, what do we know, really, about President Putin's thinking as it relates to whether or not he'll invade?

- Yamiche, this is an incredibly dangerous moment. This is the largest military buildup that we have seen in about 40 years in this part of the world. And what we know is that something has changed in the past 24 hours in terms of the level of concern among US officials. What we know is that about 80% of the military forces that Vladimir Putin would potentially need to use in order to carry out an invasion are now in place. The rest of them could swiftly follow. What my reporting has born out over the course of today is that the US has not assessed that Vladimir Putin has made a final decision to go ahead with an invasion, but there is an increased sense that this window of opportunity to persuade him otherwise is closing and it's closing quickly. We are coming up in a key period of time where conditions could be ripe for military invasion or attack of some form to take place. And thus far, Yamiche, the diplomacy has not delivered anything that would show Vladimir Putin is using these forces to actually win something at the negotiating table. He is taking Maximalist positions and he is not moving from them. Tomorrow, when President Biden speaks to the Russian president, he will have an opportunity to perhaps persuade him to take an off ramp.

- And Margaret, you say that the window is closing here for officials to really impact President Putin's thinking here. White House officials have said that Russia, they requested this phone call that's gonna be happening on Saturday between the two presidents. What more do we know about whether or not President Putin can be persuaded? Is there anything that President Biden can say to maybe change his mind? And really, is there a sort of diplomacy? Is it a solution that can still happen here?

- That is what there is certainly a lot of hope among Western diplomats, among US officials. And I have to say here, I hear different things depending on which European official I am talking to. And there are some points of difference there in terms of the perception of Vladimir Putin's intent. But it is hard to argue with the facts on the ground that he has created in terms of the military buildup. And that is really where these warnings that you're seeing, whether it it's Canada, the UK, the Israelis, move their diplomats and thin out their presence in that capital city of Kyiv. And it is that concern that that capital city could be taken with relatively short notice in a very effective way, militarily, that has caused concern among many of these Western countries to say, "We need to hedge our bets and protect our people and move them out of the potential line of fire." So for President Biden, I don't know what the strategy will be in that phone call. Threats may not be the best tack forward, but certainly that has been the public posturing to date by the Biden administration, that there won't be preventative action that will be deterrents, but there will be punishment in the form of economic sanctions and further buildup of US forces in the NATO countries surrounding Ukraine.

- Yeah, and Vivian, I should say thank you again for being here. You've been very generous with your time. You're sort of our Ukrainian correspondent at this point with all that's going on, so we really appreciate you coming back on. I wanna ask you a little bit about the issues on the ground. Margaret was just talking about the fact that the facts on the ground tell the story here, apart from whatever the posturing is. We have seen Ukrainian officials, the president of Ukraine, trying to downplay the threat that was happening here, but then today we saw Ukrainian military forces say, "Actually, this is gonna be a urgent situation. We are worried about this military buildup." What's changed there on the ground and why are we hearing this tone change by Ukrainian officials?

- Well, they do recognize that the situation is becoming very dire for them. That Russian build up is not actually scaling back, that it is building up, and especially to their northern border in Belarus, where they have this major issue, now with the number of troops in Belarus growing by the day. And it doesn't just threaten Ukraine. It also threatens countries like Poland, the Baltic countries, a number of others. And so this is something that they are acknowledging and they know that deal with the threat. They understand what their country is facing. But one of the big issues and the reason that they've been trying to tone down their rhetoric this whole time is to not instill panic. For them, any kind of hit to the economy, a major blow domestically to President Zelensky and to his officials. And they believe that that is something that could really trigger a house of cards situation where if the economy gets hit because people are rushing the banks or fleeing the country in panic, then really a lot of other issues could happen and the government could crumble or be very vulnerable. And so that is really what they're trying to project publicly, but privately, they do recognize that their country has been under a threat for eight years. And they probably do recognize, and some of them have acknowledged privately, "Yes, we see that the situation is growing increasingly serious, but we just don't wanna have to present that." And part of it is sort of, remember, it's a little bit of a bluffing game and who folds first. For them, they believe that Vladimir Putin has been bluffing up until very recently, and they don't wanna show that they are in any way intimidated by him or fearful of what he possibly do. The Ukrainian military is leaps and bounds more powerful, more equipped, more skilled than it was in 2014. And so for them, the image that they essentially wanna put out there is "Okay, if you are really going to take this tack, bring it on, we are ready for you." And so that is what they've been trying to project this whole time.

- Yeah, and Phil, you have, of course, Margaret talking about how dangerous the situation is. You have Vivian talking about the fact that this is incredibly serious. I wonder if you can talk about the politics of this. President Biden campaigned on ending wars. Here now we're seeing more troops, 3000 troops, go into Eastern Europe and they're there to bolster NATO allies. Jake Sullivan, who is national security advisor, insists they're not there to fight. But what are the politics at hand here? What is the president weighing as all of this is happening? And could it impact Democrats in the midterms?

- It absolutely could, Yamiche. The politics here are very dicey for Biden. This is a war weary country and has been in the nearly two decades since America began those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Biden, as you note campaigned in 2020 on ending US entanglements overseas. He of course withdrew US forces last year from Afghanistan, bringing an end to that war, the forever war. And yet that was a chaotic and messy withdrawal. And so there are a couple of things on the line here for Biden. There's of course the question of whether US forces go into Ukraine and actually engage in a war with Russian forces were Russia to invade Ukraine in protecting our ally, the Ukrainians. But there's also the question of can Biden competently execute a strategy as commander in chief? He got a lot of criticism last year over the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was messy. It was chaotic. Civilian lives were at stake in that withdrawal. It was very difficult to get all the Americans out in time before the Taliban took over the big cities and villages in Afghanistan. And so a lot of people are gonna be watching whether Biden and his administration can execute their strategy as it relates to Ukraine, cleanly, competently, and without putting American military lives in danger. You've seen so far today that Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, is urging Americans to leave Ukraine, that it is dangerous for them there. And so people will be watching in the next couple of days to see how that is all executed.

- Yeah, and Margaret,

- [Margaret] And I think, Yamiche-- Phil's talking about the danger, oh, go ahead.

- No, I think Phil is right. I think there are two things here. I think Afghanistan looms large in terms of the competency that Phil just pointed to. I mean, that is just absolutely essential and you hear that, whether it is the national security advisor emphasizing time and again, "If you're American leave now, because we're not coming in to get you." That is not just about saying we're not going through the unprecedented evacuation in Afghanistan, but that they're also not going to be boxed in or allow the president to be boxed into a situation where he could be forced to confront Russia head on if an American is somehow caught in crossfire or American staff, because, remember, we had that us embassy there, even though the staff is thinning out. But I would also say in terms of what President Biden ran on, he also framed his entire presidency as about returning America to the world stage, about redefining who America is and reminding the world about the international rules based order, which sounds like really wonky foreign policy stuff, but it's everything in terms of just how the world has functioned since World War Two. The idea that might doesn't make right, that you can't go in and just invade a country because you like the territory, that there will be punishment under international law, that there will be consequences for it. And so on the other side of this decision, you have President Biden looking and having to weigh does he wanna defend that system and how much? He's already said he's not willing to have American lives cost. He's not willing to send in US troops to defend that world order, but he has to do something here. And he has to flex that muscle, because on the other side of this, potentially, is a much riskier world. Because what is the message being sent to China, to other aggressors? And when you have two nuclear powers, the US and Russia, potentially facing off here, that puts a real different cast to the decisions here, other than just a conversation about Ukraine. So the stakes here really are high for the president in terms of his message as the foreign policy president who spent decades doing this. He was the guy who ran the Ukraine portfolio back in 2014. That also looms large. That Vladimir Putin got the better of the Obama administration in that moment back then. He did seize the territory. He didn't back down. And now President Biden wants to show that he learned that lesson, that he won't get caught again.

- And it's all such good context here when you think about the stakes of all of this. Vivian, I wanna ask you one last question. There are so many people that are watching this that maybe are connected to people who might be deploying or who have loved ones who are in the military. Talk a little bit about what goes into a decision to deploy our troops? The fact that the US is saying they're not gonna fight, but they could possibly maybe be in harm's way. Talk a bit about that and the consequences that could come of this dangerous situation.

- Of course for military families, any situation like this one is one that provokes a lot of anxiety and just a lot of emotions. And especially after what we saw in Afghanistan last year, those emotions are definitely on overdrive as well. But President Biden has been very firm all along and Margaret just touched upon it, that he just has no desire to get involved militarily. And that even includes this risk that the capital Kyiv could be attacked and a lot of European officials are saying something very different. They say if Kyiv is attacked, it's game over, that kind of changes the entire dynamic in the ballgame and they may have to get involved, But the US still staying firm to the fact that they do not wanna do it. This is a European issue at the end of the day and militarily, the US doesn't have a role to play. However, the US troops are still there as a support mechanism, they're there to reinforce our allies, they're there to help Americans get out safely and that is the mission that they are primarily there for at this point in time.

- Yeah, and an important mission. Thank you so much, Vivian, in particular, for sharing your reporting. And I said, again, for being so generous with your time. I really appreciate it. Meanwhile, this week, on the domestic front, the National Archives asked the Department of Justice to investigate former President Donald Trump's handling of White House documents, including information marked classified and top secret. And over the past few days, Washington has saw both parties divided. The GOP tensions came after the Republican National Committee censured Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for taking part in the January 6 investigation. The resolution called the capital attack, the violent capital attack, quote, "legitimate political discourse." That language immediately led to backlash from Democrats and a few Republicans. Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell pushed back as well.

- It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next.

- In the meantime, a number of Democratic governors announced they would roll back mass requirements. But in his interview with NBC News, President Biden stood by the mandates. Though he would not directly criticize Democratic governors, he did say this.

- I committed that I would follow the science as put forward by the CDC and the federal people. And I think it's probably premature, but it's a tough call.

- Joining the conversation now, Errin Haines, editor at large for The 19th, a nonprofit news site focused on covering gender and politics. Thank you so much, Errin, for being here. I wanna go first to you, Phil. You've written, of course, two books on former President Trump and covered him extensively. Talk a little bit about the significance of what we learned this week on how the former president handled documents and also the fact that there are call logs that are missing critical information. Could there be consequences here now that we have the DOJ involved?

- There could be, Yamiche. We'll have to see whether the Justice Department, how they decide to move forward with these revelations, that some of the documents that were obtained by the National Archives in recent weeks from Mar-a-Lago that Trump had taken with him from the White House, that some of them were classified, including some were top secret. And thanks to the reporting from my colleagues at the Washington Post and some other news organizations, we've learned a lot about, really, the carelessness with which Trump and those who worked for him in the White House, how they approached the archival process and how they dealt with documentation, presidential records that are part of the public record that are supposed to be sent to the National Archives. There were papers that Trump had apparently torn up and then aides had to tape them back together. There was even a report from the New York Times, Maggie Haberman, that some documents had been flushed down the toilet by the former president. And so there was a real disregard for the law, the federal law, which requires that these public records be treated as, that these presidential records, rather, be treated as public records and handed over to the National Archives. We're gonna have to wait and see what the Justice Department decides to do about that. But politically speaking, there's a real irony here. Because we all remember it was only five or six years ago when Trump began running for president and he seized upon Hillary Clinton, then the Secretary of State, her use of a private email server and the classified documents that were sent on private emails and made that a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. Fast forward and we see former President Trump with the same careless regard.

- Yeah, and Errin, what does it reveal about where the state of American democracy is that you have a major political party, the Republican party, the Republican National Committee, saying that January 6 was, quote, "legitimate political discourse" and that there are only a few Republicans willing to speak out against it? And that comes as a research poll found that fewer Americans are blaming former President Trump for what happened on January 6.

- Right, Yamiche, and I think it's important to point out that that resolution really criticizing Representative Kinzinger and Representative Cheney, that was unanimously approved at the RNC gathering that described January 6 as legitimate political discourse, which could not be further from the truth for those of us who were watching and who were present on the events of that day. Listen, I think overall, the more that we learn in the press about the January 6 insurrection, the stronger the case for public hearings and a full accounting of what happened and how we got there. Democrats know that they're in a race against the clock on this issue because midterms are looming, which means that they're competing for voters' attention spans as well as, obviously, their votes, by the way. They're saying these hearings could come as soon as the spring and could dominate the midterms headed into November, but if Democrats lose control of Congress, we know what happens, Yamiche. You can assume the first order of business is gonna be to dismantle that commission, which leaves possibly the courts as potentially the place where we may learn some, but probably far less, about what actually happened leading up to and on that fateful day for our democracy.

- Yeah, and I also wanna ask you briefly about the Supreme Court on Monday reinstating an Alabama congressional map. The lower court said that it diluted the power of African American voters. What does it say about the state of the Voting Rights Act and also what the power of Black voters in this country, who are critical, of course, to the Democratic party, how that power, that access, also, to the ballot box might be limited come the midterms and even the 20,24 presidential election?

- Well, this is exactly why you have local and state officials continuing to press for federal legislation and a federal response, really, to the ongoing threat of suppression that is functioning under the guise of a false threat to election integrity which we know is not real. We know that the 2020 election was the safest election in US history, according to members of the Trump administration. And so the Black voters who showed up in record numbers, even in the midst of a pandemic, we know that this legislation is targeted directly in response to that record turnout, with state houses across the country continuing to pass this legislation, seeking redress in the form of federal legislation, seeking redress in the form of Justice Department action, which by the way, was not really available as an avenue for redress most recently, but certainly with Attorney Merrick Garland on there now you have lawmakers, but also so many of the voters that wanted voter protection now looking to take action.

- Yeah, and Margaret, I wanna ask you about, of course, the CDC and the mask mandates. Why are we seeing Democratic governors and some vulnerable Democrats who are running for reelection or Democrats who want to be elected, changing their tune and getting behind lifting some of these mask requirements?

- It's fascinating, isn't it? But I think all of us, we know our own exhaustion levels personally. It's something that I know at CBS we have seen in our focus groups, we've heard, regardless of party affiliation, this sense of depression, frustration, exhaustion, and anger, whether it's the state, local, or federal government, that we are in the third year of this pandemic. And as we know, let's be honest, public policy is always a balance, in some way, of politics with the science. It's never clearly one or the other, at least it hasn't been in this pandemic to date. There's been a lot of guesswork. When it comes to the masking, I think it's interesting, in November you have the state of Pennsylvania lift mask mandates. In New Jersey, it will be effective March 7. So there is a sort of planning ahead going into the spring there, that is different than the way the Republican governor of Virginia instituted his reversal, basically saying, "No more mask mandates" in a way that locked him into court battles with school districts. In New Jersey, for example, the governor is just saying, "I'm gonna lift it and school districts can decide." So in some ways it's pushing that political problem onto the shoulders of school districts and schools and not having it just be aimed at the governor's office here.

- Yeah, well, it's something we're definitely gonna keep watching. Of course, all of this is happening as inflation is higher than ever. So all these different things that we need to be still covering. Thank you so much to Margaret, to Phil, to Errin, for joining us and sharing your reporting. We will continue our conversation on the "Washington Week Extra." This week's topics: the fatal shooting of Amir Locke in Minnesota, no knock warrants, and policing. Find it on our website, Facebook, and YouTube. And tune in Monday to the "PBS News Hour" for the latest on the Ukraine crisis as the US and NATO allies seek to prevent an all out war with Russia. Thank you again for joining us. I'm Yamiche Alcindor, goodnight from Washington.


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