Biden’s ‘reset’ dismays Ukraine…

Actions speak louder than words, even when it comes to press conferences. An email sent by White House press secretary Jen Psaki after Biden’s marathon Q&A with reporters yesterday to clarify the president’s comments on Ukraine and Russia confirmed what was obvious to anyone watching: that Joe Biden’s freewheeling discussion of what Vladimir Putin might do in Ukraine was a disaster.

Biden said that Russia will be held accountable if it invades Ukraine, adding that his “guess” is that Putin will “move in.” But he said that the consequences Russia faces depends on what it does. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do,” he said.

When a reporter followed up, asking if Biden’s words gave Putin the go ahead for a “minor incursion,” the president said, “Good question. That’s how it did sound like, didn’t it?” He clarified that he drew a line at “Russian forces crossing the border, killing Ukrainian fighters.” In her clean-up statement, Psaki said that Biden “affirmed today that…acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.”

Perhaps because that isn’t what the president said, that isn’t how his words were received in Kiev, where alarm and dismay was expressed over the president’s choice of words. “This gives the green light to Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure,” a Ukrainian official told CNN.

We journalists are supposed to savor moments when powerful people say more than is judicious. That was not how it felt watching Biden yesterday. He appeared unsteady and muddled on an issue that could hardly be more important to European security. That’s an unnerving spectacle. It is one thing for American priorities to be elsewhere. There are limits to American power. But it is another thing altogether to needlessly give the game away.

As Biden himself put it yesterday, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be “the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War Two.” And yet the US and its allies’ response to Putin’s aggression feels hopelessly undercooked. Biden hasn’t even nominated an ambassador to Ukraine. As Emmanuel Macron’s latest gambit makes clear, European leaders and the US are by no means in lockstep. Even accepting the limits of what America can or should do to counter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe in 2022, Biden’s press conference made clear just how badly the West is playing the hand it has been dealt.

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…and America

As you’d expect from a two-hour press conference, the president covered a wide range of subjects.

Biden acknowledged that Build Back Better would have to be broken into pieces. He said he was satisfied with his team (i.e. no sackings in the West Wing). He said that Kamala Harris would be his running mate in 2024. He blamed Republicans for his lack of legislative progress. He said he didn’t believe the polls. And he admitted that his administration had dropped the ball on Covid testing.

To the dismay of many, he also refused to say whether he thought the results of the 2022 election would be legitimate. It is indeed concerning to hear a sitting US president cast doubt on the validity of elections in his own country. (That is something we have had to hear far too much of in recent years.) If American democracy is in crisis, it is a crisis of legitimacy. And one to which Biden is, shamelessly, recklessly and cynically contributing.

This morning, senior Democrats are doubling down on Biden’s comments on future elections. Kamala Harris and Jim Clyburn both reaffirmed the president’s concerns over 2022 on morning news shows.

This has prompted pearl-clutching in the establishment media. “It is striking to hear a president not named Donald Trump raise questions about the legitimacy and sanctity of our democracy,” said CNN’s John King. But, as I have argued before, Biden’s answer to questions about 2022 is simply the logical conclusion of the story the Democratic Party has told the country about democracy in America, often with the help of those media figures now so outraged. No one should be especially surprised.

Were it the case that wide-scale voter suppression is underway in Republican-controlled states, then it really would be reasonable to question the results. But it is not. And so it isn’t. If only those so concerned about Biden’s refusal to call future elections legitimate would apply a little more scrutiny to Biden’s 2022 lies from which they flow.

Supreme mistake

The story of the mask wars on the Supreme Court reported by NPR’s Nina Totenberg and mentioned in yesterday’s DC Diary came crumbling down shortly after we hit send. Totenberg claimed that Justice Sonia Sotomayor had attended proceedings remotely because Justice Neil M. Gorsuch had refused to wear a mask. In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the two justices said the reporting was “false.” They added, “While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends.” Chief Justice John Roberts later added in a statement of his own that “I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice wear a mask on the bench.”

That’s about as unequivocal as it gets. Totenberg, for what it’s worth, says that NPR stands by her reporting. It is the word of three Supreme Court justices against her unnamed source. Who to believe? Part of the reason the story was taken seriously is that Totenberg has been covering the court for a long time. But as one DC Diary tipster points out, her best sources were Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia. And they are, well, dead.

What you should be reading today

Joel Kotkin: Welcome to the end of democracy
Amber Athey: Youngkin sprints out the gate in Virginia
Ericka Andersen: Systemic child abuse in the age of Covid
Jonathan Martin, New York Times: A pollster’s warning to Democrats: we have a problem
Ken Dilanian and Josh Lederman, NBC News: CIA says Havana Syndrome is not the result of sustained campaign by foreign power
Brian Chau, Tablet: The rule of the midwits

Poll watch

President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 41.2 percent
Disapprove: 53.3 percent
Net approval: -12.1 (RCP Average)

Do you consider yourself to be more of a supporter of the Republican Party or Donald Trump? (Asked of voters who are either Republicans or lean Republican)
Donald Trump: 36 percent
The Republican Party: 56 percent (NBC/Hart)

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