YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
Next week President Biden will take his first overseas trip as commander in chief. I’ll be there traveling with him as he heads to Europe for meetings with the G-7 and NATO. His last stop will be in Geneva, where he is planning to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Joining me tonight are four reporters covering it all: Leigh Ann Caldwell, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News; Astead Herndon, national political reporter for The New York Times; and joining me here in studio, Anita Kumar, White House correspondent and associate editor for Politico; and Annie Linskey, White House reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you all for being here.
Now, we have been talking about domestic democracy, but White House sources tell me President Biden’s trip will be about underscoring the U.S. role in global democracy. This comes amid hacks targeting American infrastructure by bad actors reportedly based in Russia. Anita, I want to come to you. What have you been hearing about, really, the goals here for President Biden when he sits down with the Russian president, and how is he going to push for human rights and push back on these hacks?
ANITA KUMAR: Yeah, I mean, they are really – the White House is really sort of downplaying expectations because this is the first conversation that they’re going to have. Now, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden have spoken before, they’ve met before, but not when they were both president, so it’s just a whole different thing going on, a whole different relationship. So they’re saying, look, they might not have a lot of things – deliverables, things that they come home and say here are the accomplishments, but it’s the first conversation and it’s to push back privately on some of those things you’re talking about, and to then talk about issues where they could have some common ground, but to kind of tell Vladimir Putin where the U.S. government is right now. And he knows – Joe Biden knows he’s going to get some criticism for doing it. He already is getting criticism for rewarding Vladimir Putin with this meeting, but he feels that it’s important to meet with people and have these conversations. And if you look back on his political life, he’s done it over and over again. He’s met and said 20 years ago that he would meet with the Iranians when that was controversial, and it’s still controversial. So it’s not something he’s worried about, that political fallout; it’s to start the conversation.
MS. ALCINDOR: Annie, what are you hearing about this overseas trip? And in particular, how do you – how do you – what is the White House telling you about how President Biden is going to push for democracy over autocracy, which is something he’s really built into a lot of his speeches?
ANNIE LINSKEY: Yeah, he uses that frame quite frequently of sort of this moment being a battle between, you know, as you put it, democracy and sort of dictatorships, and he uses it, you know, with his domestic agenda when he’s talking about the infrastructure bill and sort of saying to Republicans that they should support his legislation to show that democracy can work and that he’s going to negotiate with Republicans in good faith for that reason, but overseas he’s also – he’s said that – I was traveling with him over the weekend and Memorial Day at a speech in Delaware that was, you know, kind of a long – it wasn’t that long, but it was a –
MS. ALCINDOR: It was an hour and a half.
MS. LINSKEY: Well, the event was an hour –
MS. ALCINDOR: Oh, the event – (laughter) – was an hour and a half.
MS. LINSKEY: The event was an hour and a half. (Laughter.) Biden’s speech – it was interesting – was about 15 minutes, but he did say – he did say – all of a sudden out of nowhere in the speech he sort of started talking about his conversation with Chinese President Xi and said, you know, we were on the phone for two hours and I talked about human rights, and then he said when I am meeting with Putin I am also going to talk about human rights, and he connected that to this Memorial Day service where, you know, we were standing next to this wall with the names of people – you know, soldiers who had died in World War II and in Korea, saying that, you know, these are people who died for our values, and when I go and am sitting across the table from Vladimir Putin I am going to talk about these values, which I believe – and the two of you covered Trump – you know, covered the Trump White House – was not necessarily the same sort of dynamic in those meetings.
MS. KUMAR: Definitely. (Laughter.)
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, definitely different. And Astead, I want to come to you. We saw these hacks and we’ve seen these hacks impacting American infrastructure. I wonder, how is Washington, how are lawmakers and leaders that you’re talking to, reacting to this? And what are the expectations, possibly, for the way that President Biden can push back on this?
ASTEAD HERNDON: Yeah, I think the expectations are as you laid out. I mean, the expectations are quietly a kind of return to normalcy of the American presidential role in these types of things. (Laughs.) I think Biden’s going to get a lot of those kind of, oh, remember the last four years under President Trump when those things were kind of abandoned, particularly in talks with Putin. I mean, we all know the stunning moments that we can remember from those news conferences. I think really, you know, we’re not going to necessarily see a president who can point to a he has, you know, deliverables, as was said earlier, but could point to a reassertion of values and a reassertion of kind of, frankly, tension with some of these – with some places where that hasn’t been over the last four-and-a-half years. I mean, we’re coming out of a Democratic primary that was so domestically focused, right, but this is a place where Joe Biden thinks that he is uniquely suited, that he was – you know, that was his pitch to voters, to say, hey, you want someone who Vladimir Putin knows sitting across the table and who knows is an adversary and will – actually will live up to that. And so this is, I think, the chance for him to do that. What I think makes it unique is we have the aberrant experience of the last four years rather than what he is going to do, which is certainly in the mold of what presidents have done before.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Leigh Ann, I want to come to you because after getting a lot of requests the U.S. announced that it’s going to be shipping millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine abroad. I wonder what that move – how that move is being seen on Capitol Hill and what impact that might have globally?
LEIGH ANN CALDWELL: Well, Yamiche, the ones who have been the most vocal about it have actually been some of the progressives. The Congressional Progressive Caucus sent out a letter saying that the shipment of the global vaccines is actually not enough, with the understanding, they say, that you have to vaccinate the world in order to protect Americans. Representative Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she tells a story of her parents, who live in India and got COVID, and so there was actually a push from the progressives to do more. Now, as far as Republicans are concerned, the fight that they want to have is on the origins of COVID, and that’s something that has been – as you know, been bubbling over the past year, since the former president used to, you know, mention it randomly throughout his – pepper it throughout his speeches, focusing on that as far as COVID is concerned, but now they are really wanting to look back. They’re calling for a commission – not a January 6th commission, but a commission to investigate the origins of COVID. So that’s where the politics are really falling on this, but the interesting thing is that Democrats, you know, they don’t necessarily want to go along with the Republican ideas on investigating COVID – the origins of COVID, but they’re not opposed to the intelligence looking into it. They want to find answers, too. But it’s interesting how COVID has become – you know, as we all know, Congress mirrors the rest of the public, and that’s how the debate is falling down here.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I want to turn to another thing that’s been going on this week. Haiti is a country that has long struggled and is experiencing now a new kind of crisis. Gang violence and kidnappings have skyrocketed in the island nation. Many are calling for the removal of President Jovenel Moise. He is being accused of acting like a dictator and colluding with gangs, and Haitians abroad and in the U.S. are criticizing the Biden administration for siding with President Moise. In my latest report for PBS NewsHour, some protesters in Haiti even called for a closer alignment with Russia while wrapping themselves in the Russian flag. Take a look at one man’s criticism of the policies of the U.S.
MR. : (From video, through interpreter.) What promise? I’m going to tell you something: As long as the American government has gone up, made changes, gone down, they have always made Haiti dozens of promises, yet none has ever been executed.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now, the Biden administration is allowing Haitians – or is allowing Haitians in the U.S. to renew their protected immigration status, and the U.S. says it believes in the peaceful transfer of power and that is helps and strengthens democratic institutions. Anita, I want to come to you. You cover a lot of immigration. I wonder how this will impact President Biden possibly politically when you think about what’s going on in Haiti and the stance of the U.S.
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, immigration has been really interesting for President Biden. You know, he has made good on some of the promises and he did talk about giving this protected status to Haitians and to those from other countries, and he has made good on that promise. But he has not made good on some of his other promises on immigration and making the United States more welcoming, and we’ve seen some of the toughest moments he’s had in the last four months have been about immigration. He has still – the border with Mexico and Canada, it remains closed. This is something that Democrats really criticized him for or criticized Donald Trump for when he first did it, and they haven’t budged on that; that hasn’t changed. You know, obviously, there was some issue with the refugee numbers, the refugee cap that the Biden administration put into place. So while he is really trying to reverse things that President Trump did on immigration, it’s actually been a lot harder than the administration realized it would be. These are really, really tough issues, you know, to deal with what’s happening in other countries and having all these migrants try to come to the United States. So it has been tough. It’s been one of the toughest issues, I’d say, that the administration’s had over the last four months.
MS. ALCINDOR: It is a tough issue, as you say. I also want to ask you, because we covered former President Trump together, how different, though, is the approach that the Biden administration is taking specifically to Haiti than to the former president, Trump, who called the country, frankly, a S-hole country?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, I mean, it’s night and day. I mean, obviously, the number-one thing before you get to any policy is about the rhetoric – it’s what does the president himself say. And we’ve – you’ve just referenced what President Trump said, and how he didn’t want immigrants and migrants coming to this country, both from Haiti but from other places; and you’ve seen President Biden from day one, even back in his campaign, talking about how the United States is welcoming, talking about how this is – you know, immigrants make up the fabric of this country and are valued here. And so it starts with what you talk about, and so it’s been completely different. What President Biden has found, though, is it’s hard to change things overnight, and advocates and activists who follow this, or in other countries and here, they are demanding he do things right away, and sometimes it’s just not possible to do things overnight.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, it’s very – it’s very hard to do things overnight. Astead, Haitians are a powerful voting bloc when you look at a swing state like Florida in particular. Democrats have also, like Kendrick – I mean, like Gregory Meeks and Hakeem Jeffries. They’ve also condemned the actions of President Moise. I wonder, what are the political stakes here for Democrats and for the president?
MR. HERNDON: Yeah, I mean, I think that we’re talking about a diverse electorate. And I think we certainly know that when it comes to certain immigrant populations, particularly Latino and Hispanic immigrant populations. But that’s also true about Black immigrant populations. And I think that that is going to have to be a focus of Democrats going forward. I also think that there is a growing part of the Democratic Party – whether it’s driven by activist wing or just a growing kind of drumbeat – that is demanding that coming out of the Obama era, where immigration was an issue that particularly progressives were not satisfied with that administration, that they’re not willing to just stand for just rhetoric – better rhetoric than Donald Trump on some of these issues.
I think that there is going to be – and we’ve already seen these tensions play out, right – a real kind of holding feet to the fire on the Biden administration to follow through not only with just better words about, you know, what this – what immigrants mean to this country, but in terms of policy also. We saw that on the Democratic debate stage, where I remember Julian Castro and Joe Biden going at it on that issue too. That is an increasing portion of the party. And I think that is going to be a demand, not only for Haitian communities but for immigrant communities at large.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Leigh Ann, I want to come to you on this idea about President Biden shifting the focus and shifting the rhetoric away from Russia as our biggest foe to China as our biggest foe. I wonder what you make of that, and how that’s being received on Capitol Hill.
MS. CALDWELL: Well, on Capitol Hill they’re actually in the middle of a massive China competitiveness bill. The Senate was actually legislating for the first time in a very, very long time. They spent two weeks on this legislation. They’re off this week and they’re coming back to it when they return. And it’s a really interesting strategy because Republicans were gearing up after the last elections to making China a key issue, calling Democrats weak on China.
That was really going to be a big political issue for Republicans. But what Democrats have done is they’ve made it a bipartisan issue, and they’ve taken on similar language, and they’ve taken on the issue as well. And one of the first big pieces of legislation that Schumer put on the floor is this China bill, which is very bipartisan and which is actually expected to pass the Senate. And so they are really aligned with President Biden on this issue, on focusing on China. And it’s an issue that is going to be interesting politics moving ahead, since both sides are trying to own the issue, Yamiche.
MS. ALCINDOR: Annie, I want to come to you. You were nodding your head. I’m just going to – (laughs) –
MS. LINSKEY: Oh, yeah. (Laughs.)
MS. ALCINDOR: I’m just going to ask you, why were you nodding your head? And jump in here.
MS. LINSKEY: I just want to say Leigh Ann is absolutely right, this is a Schumer initiative. You know, it has been bipartisan legislation coming out of the Hill but, as you might expect with anything that seems to have some sort of chance of success, the Biden White House has been very clear that parts of this were part of the build back better agenda that Biden campaigned on. And so you can expect, if this does pass, the White House to be taking some credit for it as well.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, thank you all. We’ll have to leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Leigh Ann, Astead, Anita, and Annie for your insights, and thank you for joining us.
Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. It will give you a behind-the-scenes look at all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.