Full Episode: Washington Week with The Atlantic full episode, 9/8/23

Sep. 08, 2023 AT 9:02 p.m. EDT

President Biden is in Asia seeking to counter China’s growing influence while Republicans hammer the president on his age and threaten to impeach him ahead of his son Hunter’s expected indictment. Join moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times, Franklin Foer of The Atlantic and Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal to discuss this and more.

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

Jeffrey Goldberg: A closer look at President Biden's achievements and his challenges.

President Biden is in Asia seeking to curb China's growing influence.

Jake Sullivan, National Security Adviser: Providing weapons to Russia, this is not going to reflect well on North Korea, and they will pay a price for this.

Jeffrey Goldberg: The U.S. puts North Korea's Kim Jong-un on notice as he weighs sending weapons to Russia for use against Ukraine.

Plus --

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY):  People are mad because they see the country heading in the wrong direction. People also do not believe that Joe Biden is up to the task.

Jeffrey Goldberg: -- Republicans hammer the president on his age and threaten to impeach him ahead of his son Hunter's expected indictment, next.

Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK. Tonight, President Biden is in India to attend the G 20 summit. He is also adding a day of meetings with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi. It's a trip aimed at strengthening key relationships while countering China's growing influence.

Earlier this week, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned that North Korea would pay a price if it aids Russia with weapons for its war with Ukraine. Kim Jong-un plans to travel to Russia soon to finalize a weapons sale.

Back home, President Biden's reelection efforts are complicated by voters' ongoing concerns about his age and his son Hunter's legal vulnerabilities. A special counsel recently announced he expects to indict Hunter Biden later this month. The president is also facing impeachment threats from some Republicans, though the rationale for such an impeachment inquiry is unclear.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS):  There's probably 40 percent of Americans are out there thinking that our president is not only incompetent but that he's a crook. I think that they have enough there to do that impeachment inquiry.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Tonight, we're going to take stock of the Biden presidency so far and look ahead at the challenges he faces.

Joining us to discuss this and more, Elisabeth Bumiller is the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, Frank Foer, my colleague at The Atlantic and the author of the new book, The Last Politician, Inside Joe Biden's White House and the Struggle for America's Future, and Nancy Youssef, a national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

Frank, first of all, congratulations on this book.

Franklin Foer, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: Thank you.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It's a very exciting and interesting read. And that's the last nice thing I'm going to say, but it's a very good book and we're very pleased for you.

But let's go right at this toughest question.

Franklin Foer: Yes.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You've been following Joe Biden now from the beginning of the presidency. Tell us what you know about his physical health and stamina and his mental acuity.

Franklin Foer: So these questions are not binary questions. There's an element of subjectivity to them because the nature of aging is such that it happens differently for different people.

But I think one of the assumptions that people tend to make is that there's the sell by date on a human being. And so the fact that he no longer walks the way that he used to walk or the way that he talks in the way that -- he doesn't talk the same way that he used to talk doesn't necessarily mean anything about the way that his mind works.

And I think if you --

Jeffrey Goldberg: And the energy level is an interesting question, though.

Franklin Foer: Yes. So on the mental acuity part, Nikki Haley's talked about giving a mental acuity test for presidents. I'm sure Biden would ace that test.

The energy question is a different question because he's going into this campaign and it's going to be conducted in a different way than the 2020 campaign was conducted. He didn't conduct a campaign because of COVID stumping through the country. He was able to pick his spots and let Trump essentially hoist himself on his own patard.

This is going to be a different election where he has to energetically make the case for his accomplishments and also energetically make the case for his own energy, in a way, given the doubts that voters have about his age.

Jeffrey Goldberg: That's extremely meta-sounding, energetically make the case for energy.

Elisabeth, how serious a challenge is this for his re-election campaign?

Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington Bureau Chief, The New York Times: Well, the problem is that you hear different things from the White House. You hear on one hand that -- I'll answer your question in a minute, but you hear on one hand know he's awakened at 3:00 in the morning in Asia. This is a true story told that the missile has hit Poland. The panic goes off in the national security apparatus. He convenes world leaders. He handles it. This is a story that is true. He was commander in chief.

Not too long ago, he was at the White House in the Rose Garden talking about his grandchildren, and he slipped up on the number of them. He got confused about where they lived. And you see that in public. So, you hear two different stories, and both obviously can be true.

But it is a problem, because what voters see is what you see in public. And what you see in public is an 80-year-old man who has a very stiff gait, who speaks very, very softly. He doesn't project energy, unlike Donald Trump, who has a certain bombastic energy, and he's only three years younger than Biden.

So, what voters see is the man who is showing his age doesn't help him.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Nancy, I want you to just jump in on this because you have a unique view as a foreign correspondent, somebody who's traveled with presidents overseas. Those trips can be really, really tough, not only the time zone change and everything else, but unrelenting schedule. You're watching President Biden from afar on this trip, but you've seen him up close. Can you give your own assessment of how he does in these really, really difficult circumstances?

Nancy Youssef, National Security Correspondent: Well, I think it's fair to say that those trips are indeed grueling. We're talking about going from country to country, maybe five countries in five days. And there's been no evidence, publicly at least, of him really struggling physically.

But having said that, I think we see often events start after 10:00 A.M. We see different pacings of schedules than maybe some previous presidents. And so each president is allowed to set their own tone in terms of how aggressively they hold meetings, how often they hold them.

But I think you see some signs of someone who might not have been moving as quickly or as Obama, but also we haven't seen as many foreign trips, I think, by this president than some of his predecessors.

And so I think there's been a real selective process in picking how they want to travel and at the same time signaling that the U.S. is a world leader again. So, how you strike that balance of sort of meeting the needs of the president and what the physical demands of those trips, and at the same time being able to successfully say this administration is committed to reestablishing the U.S. presence on the world stage.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Frank, you've not only studied President Biden closely, but in your book, you've obviously spent a lot of time talking to Democrats about this presidency. Do you think in six or nine months Democrats are going to regret not having had a primary?

Franklin Foer: I think one reason that Democrats have not jumped to this age question is because they like Joe Biden personally. They like Joe Biden. I think that he's delivered on so much of their agenda.

Jeffrey Goldberg: But a lot of Democrats, rank and file Democrats, said they see the age as a concern.

Franklin Foer: Right. And this is the issue, is that Biden has so struggled to sell his accomplishments to connect with the base in any sort of meaningful way. There isn't the same sort of visceral love for Joe Biden among rank and file Democratic voters in the same sort of way that it existed maybe for Clinton and Obama.

So, the question is the poll numbers for Biden -- the recent poll numbers for Biden haven't been great. The danger is that we are sleepwalking into some sort of version, a repeat version of the 2016 election, where Republicans have a very clear line of attack and are able to define Biden in a way that sticks not just with Republican voters but with Independents.

Jeffrey Goldberg: But there's something unreal about that, because, right now, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is facing 91 felony counts and was twice impeached. I mean, it seems almost a bit, on the one hand, you have somebody who's showing some visible signs of age. On the other hand, you have a guy who might be a convicted felon.

Franklin Foer: I think it's incumbent. We're dealing with these split screen things, where you have the Hunter Biden trial happening alongside Trump's indictments. You have questions about age being raised at the same time that you have all these questions about Donald Trump's own mental stability that perpetually are being raised. I think it's incumbent upon media and also the Biden campaign to be able to explain relative difference between these two things because they simply don't exist on the same plane.

Whatever Hunter Biden did is a fraction of what Donald Trump has done to democracy or the criminal abuses that are alleged against him, whatever his --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. And noting just -- I want to hear you in one second, Elisabeth, on this question, but noting this is a very important thing to say. Hunter Biden is not running for anything. Hunter Biden himself is not running for office. He's not in government. And that's one of the dissonant points here.

But, Elisabeth --

Elisabeth Bumiller: There's no parallel, whatsoever, as Frank just said. But in those polls where people say they're concerned about the president's age, do they say they're not going to vote for him because he's old? I don't think -- you can be concerned about the president's age, but you can still vote for him, especially if your choice is going to be a man facing 91 felony counts.

So, I think that -- and also the polls, it's very early, those are head-to-head matchups of registered voters, not likely voters. We all know the caveats here. It's far. They're not --

Franklin Foer: No. I was also going to say, and the economy --

Elisabeth Bumiller: It's doing super well. But, unfortunately, for the Democrats and the White House, they don't seem to know -- voters don't seem to know that.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Elisabeth, let me read you something from David Brooks just this week. Quote, Bidenomics is working big time. President Biden promised to help America outcompete authoritarian China and to heal some of the economic divides at home. Both those goals are being achieved.

Elisabeth Bumiller: Right.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, why can't this White House get that message out?

Elisabeth Bumiller: That is a very good question. That was an excellent comment by David Brooks this morning. There was also one by Paul Krugman making the point that the economy is doing pretty well. So far, there hasn't been the recession everybody was predicting. And people actually say in polls, which Krugman cites, that they're doing really well. It's just that the economy is terrible. So, this makes no sense.

But it seems to me that it's just odd. And I think Biden is out there talking every day about the economy, but it just doesn't seem to be sinking in at this point.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I want to turn to Biden on the global stage in one minute. But, Frank, is there a chance that he may decide not to run?

Franklin Foer: I think that you -- I think that -- what would it take for him not to get to that point? I think there would have to be many, many consistent polls that showed him losing to Donald Trump by margins that are far greater than the ones that we're seeing. There would have to be pressure on him from outside.

I think you've seen a lot of pressure from media this week that has kind of started to take the polling question and start to really pound Biden on this. And I think that that could sink down, trickle down into a broader sense of party panic. But that's the only scenario that I could imagine where it wouldn't happen.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Nancy, you study Biden on the world stage very carefully. Give us your overview, biggest success on the world stage, biggest failure or biggest challenge?

Nancy Youssef: Well, remember when he came into the administration, he had said that he was going to be doing a couple of major things. He was going to do democracy promotion in the face. He sort of presented the world as democracies versus autocracies and that the United States would be the face of democracy, that would go back to honoring its agreements after under the Trump administration, the United States left the Iran nuclear deal. He also said that he would promote things like human rights in the environment.

I think if we're picking sort of the biggest success by the administration's measure, it would be Ukraine. This is the biggest war on Europe since 1945. I don't think at the beginning of the war that people would have anticipated that you would have a coalition that would give nearly $70 billion in military aid across Europe, that you would see a NATO alliance this strong even as the war has had some setbacks, the willingness of the coalition to come together and make these kinds of contributions to deter these kinds of attacks on Europe, I think, the administration point to is one of its great successes.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Nancy Youssef: In terms of challenges, I think the biggest one would be Afghanistan and the way the U.S. left. While, I think, Americans supported the end of that war, the way it happened, the images of Afghans holding on to those C-17s as they took off, I think, is one that will be a part of this administration's history, whatever happens on the world stage.

And the fact that after 20 years, the promise of not having a country that could be a potential safe haven for terrorists, that did not pan out. You've got Taliban back in control. They promise to be more moderate. They have not been. Women aren't able to go to school. We're seeing the return of the very people that the United States had targeted for 20 years. And so, to me, those are -- if you had to a sign of biggest success, biggest failure, that's where I would put it. 

Jeffrey Goldberg: Frank, in this book, you have an excellent chapter, fascinating chapter, a lot of coverage of Afghanistan. President Biden was hell bent on getting out. Can you explain that desire and can you explain the consequences of that?

Franklin Foer: Yes. So one of the interesting things about Joe Biden is that he's somebody who comes -- who's been in Washington so long, he's genuinely part of the elite, but he always thinks of himself as an outsider. And his relationship to the foreign policy elite, what Ben Rhodes termed the Blob, is a very conflicted one. He wants their approval, but also thinks that he's, in some ways, smarter than them and views them as lazy.

And so Afghanistan was this classic instance for him where he thought the establishment was locked into this war and they just couldn't get out. And so he was determined to find a way out. And he was building on the lessons of the Obama administration, where he felt like Obama had been jammed by his generals, and he was determined to not let that happen.

So, he structured the process for getting out of Afghanistan in order to overcome whatever bureaucratic obstacles, whatever obstacles the military might have put up in his way in order to make it happen.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Elisabeth, Afghanistan, big problem for Joe Biden electorally?

Elisabeth Bumiller: I don't think so. But I don't think it's an issue with voters. I don't particularly think Ukraine is an issue with voters. It's an issue with Republicans on the Hill about the money being spent. But I don't think it resonates. I really do think it's the economy that's going to be the -- and abortion is going to be a factor, climate change.

On Afghanistan, I just remember that I used to cover the military with Nancy, but I still remember the generals went in to see Biden very late in the game begging him to delay the withdrawal. And he just -- they went over repeat. You know, this, I'm sure, they went over repeatedly, and he just said, no. He's absolutely against it.

Nancy Youssef: Well, what's interesting is that the administration was really adamant about getting out. But in those final months, there was such an overestimation of the government in Kabul. You kept hearing Kabul wasn't going to fall, even as every province around them fell and fell rapidly.

And I think when people are critiquing the administration on its handling Afghanistan, it's because there wasn't a plan to get out, that there was an expectation that, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this military, this government, was going to be able to hold. And, in fact, what happened, the president fled the day that the capital came under attack.

And so I think reconciling, if the President was so adamant about getting out, which is an understandable sentiment, why not demand the military planning required to do so in a safer way?

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Franklin Foer: Well, the issue was just that the military's understanding was that, at the very end of the occupation -- the very end of our presence in Afghanistan, they would be at their most vulnerable. And so they were determined to just make it happen as quickly as possible.

The State Department was making a very different argument about the need to stay, and I think that there was a little bit of working at cross purposes there. And in the end, the intelligence agencies didn't predict that Ghani would collapse as quickly as Ghani.

Jeffrey Goldberg: That was the president who fled.

Franklin Foer: Yes, right.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Nancy, one more question on this. Between now and the election, is there anything on the world stage and national security that you think could affect the outcome of this election? What are you looking at in terms of possible threats on the horizon for the U.S. and for our stability?

Nancy Youssef: Well, I think in terms of things that voters will be watching as much as foreign policy comes up is what happens in Ukraine. I think there are some who tie the amount of aid that the United States has provided as high and are wondering is it going to lead to real gains and stability in the region, or are we starting a potential period of instability vis-a-vis Russia. You're hearing some say that that money should be invested domestically.

And so I think the outcome of that conflict, that war, and how the Ukrainians are able to fight, how much U.S. is able to support them as something that I think voters are going to be watching for.

In terms of threats, I think it's instability from the Asia-Pacific. We have heard about possible moves by China towards Taiwan, possible instability in the Asia-Pacific, and how the United States military is able to respond to it, how they're able to sort of quell those concerns about threats from the Asia-Pacific.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, Kim Jong-un coming back on the world stage in a pretty big way.

Nancy Youssef: Exactly. I mean, just this week, and this was a story The New York Times broke, this idea of a Putin-Kim meeting. Part of -- I think one of the -- that people are so nervous about it is that we're now talking about these two leaders who don't seem to have friends trying to create a new sort of world order built on a shared feeling that their shared enemy is the United States.

And so are they able to sort of galvanize an alliance that actually not only keeps the war in Ukraine going but potentially gives North Korea the military technology to build up its nuclear weapons program.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Very nice crediting of The New York Times, by the way. I feel like we're at Camp David, at a peace process. Go ahead.

Franklin Foer: One of the interesting things about Putin turning to North Korea is that, in some ways, represents a failure because he was desperate to get the Chinese on board.

And I have a story in my book about during the first days of the Ukraine war. We had this intelligence. New York Times reported this at the time that China was considering arming the Russians. And Biden ends up getting a video conference with Xi that very week and basically implores him not to do it and tells him that there will be enormous consequences and he's able to do it in a way that mattered to China, that he was predicting that American business would flee China.

We can't do that with North Korea. North Korea is not a country that is enmeshed in global capitalism. So, there's very little to stop them from forming this alliance.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right, nice crediting of it. It's fine when The Wall Street Journal credit The New York Times. I don't think The Atlantic has to go there, by the way.

But, Frank, let me ask you, let me bring it back to Biden and his presidency on the domestic side. You wrote something that's so interesting in this book. You said, quote, the consistent underestimation of Joe Biden was his diesel. We're having all of these conversations about Biden, an extremist, the impact of the Hunter Biden issue, the economy, people not recognizing what he's done in the economy. But the man has been underestimated for a very long time. Talk about that a little bit.

Franklin Foer: Yes. So, I think part of his political wisdom and part of his stubborn determination is that he can hear conversations like the one we're having tonight, and he can say, you know what, I'm not backing off my course. This happened in the midterm elections. He wanted to make the midterm elections entirely about American democracy and to make this a binary choice between him, the Democrats and the Republicans, but not a referendum on the Biden presidency.

And everybody mocked him. They said, you got to speak to inflation, you got to speak to crime. And he said, no, I'm not going to do that. And lo and behold, despite the expectations, the Democrats were able to overperform in the '22 midterm election.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Elisabeth, Jim Messina told Politico, Jim Messina, a Democratic strategist, he said that the Democrats need to stop acting as, quote, bedwetters, his word, not mine. But is he onto something? Is there like a panic that you're noticing across Democratic circles?

Elisabeth Bumiller: There's always a panic Democratic circles. When was there not? But remember like when Biden -- well, there wasn't a panic about Biden but Biden was supposed to lose the primaries, right? He was completely written off. But, yes, there's always a panic among Democrats. Democrats are worriers. They need to be warriors, the people say, but they just fret.

And I think that if you look at what Biden has accomplished or what the administration has accomplished, it's pretty extraordinary and people just aren't aware of it. I mean, we know what they are. The Infrastructure Act, all this thing that Trump never got done, that Biden got it done. All over the country in the next ten years, there will be huge billions of dollars spent on roads and bridges in local communities.

People probably won't know that's the Biden administration pouring all that money into COVID relief. And now -- so, it's a problem people don't understand it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right, go ahead.

Nancy Youssef: I was just going to say, what I think is interesting is that you're describing that a lot of the things that Biden is unable to do is because he's been in the job and survived for decades. That is the very thing his age and experience that is arguably fully success and now might be of the liability in this election. It's an interesting irony of sorts.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Nancy, I want to ask you this, because you and I are both tracking this issue, and it reflects directly back onto Joe Biden's difficulties.

Senator Tuberville has held the nominations of now hundreds of generals or promotions of hundreds of generals.

Nancy Youssef: That's right.

Jeffrey Goldberg: There's no precedent for this in American history of a senator doing that. Talk about that in the context of the challenges Joe Biden faces on national security.

Nancy Youssef: Well it's interesting because we've now entered six months of these holds, 300. The U.S. military is predicting maybe 800.

I think earlier on, you heard the Pentagon talk about this as a military readiness issue. This week, we saw the service chiefs coming out publicly, more aggressively, I think, because the Congress is back in session. And what they're saying is that this is going to have immeasurable effects that will erode the military over time.

We talk so often about the generals that aren't getting promoted, but what we heard from the service secretaries is what about the majors and the lieutenant colonels who are doing two jobs and watching the generation ahead of them not be able to move, not be able to get promoted, and asking themselves, do I really want to stay in the military? And I think that's the long-term effect we could see in national security.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. That's a fascinating issue and one that we should track.

I'm sorry that we're running out of time. I could listen to you all, all night, as I'm sure our viewers could.

I want to congratulate Frank Foer on this book. When you have your next books, come on, and I will hold them up just like I'm holding this up. And I want to thank all of you for coming and for sharing all of your reporting. Thanks to all of you for joining us.

Be sure to tune in Saturday to "PBS NEWS WEEKEND" on Saturday for a look at a report, a new report that reveals the enormous cost of invasive species.

I'm Jeffrey Goldberg. Good night from Washington.


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