But unlike those past leaders, Biden may not have to revise his fundamentally dark assessment of the former KGB officer, who has worked for more than 20 years to restore Russian influence while ruthlessly consolidating his own power.
Biden is on track to meet with Putin after sounding out key U.S. allies at a June 11-13 summit of the Group of Seven rich democracies in Cornwall, England, followed by a meeting with European leaders in Brussels and a June 14 NATO summit.
The president, asked whether he planned to see Putin during that trip, his first overseas venture, told reporters Tuesday: “That is my hope and expectation. We’re working on it.”
Biden has been “working on” the U.S.-Russia relationship for decades.
First, while serving as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, then as vice president, and as candidate in 2020, when he vowed to repudiate President Donald Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin.
In October 2020, Biden denounced Putin’s government for allegedly poisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok.
“It is the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent,” he said in early October, warning Moscow would not enjoy “impunity” if he won.
But it has been Biden’s words since taking office on Jan. 20 that have most upset the relationship, notably an interview with ABC in which the president agreed Putin was “a killer” and vowed “he will pay a price” for meddling in U.S. elections, a charge the Russian has laughed off.
In the exchange with ABC, Biden also recalled his own harsh words at a 2011 meeting with Putin, who was then prime minister, at the Kremlin. The original account appeared in a piece by Evan Osnos in the July 2014 New Yorker magazine:
“I was this close to him.” Biden held his hand a few inches from his nose. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’ ”
“You said that?” I asked. It sounded like a movie line.
“Absolutely, positively,” Biden said, and continued, “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’ ” Biden sat back, and said, “This is who this guy is!”
Ah, Putin’s soul.
Never has public debate over the state of a world leader’s eternal essence — or lack thereof — figured so prominently in foreign policy as it has in Putin’s case. And that’s down to President George W. Bush.
“Is this a man Americans can trust,” Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier asked Bush at a joint news conference after the two leaders’ first summit, a June 2001 get-together in Slovenia.
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul,” Bush replied. “He's a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country, and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue. … And that's the beginning of a very constructive relationship.”
The Republican would privately say later he felt trapped by circumstances, trying to get Russian-U.S. relations off to a good start on his watch.
Where Russia’s invasion of Georgia sealed the case for Bush, its military incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea delivered the same lesson to Barack Obama, augmented by Moscow’s alleged 2016 election meddling.
But at his first meeting with Putin, in July 2009, Obama had showered the Russian with praise, citing the “extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people” and declaring “we think there’s an excellent opportunity to put U.S.-Russian relations on a much stronger footing.”
Bush and Obama advanced some U.S. policy goals with Russia — notably on nuclear arms control, counter-terrorism cooperation.
But both presidents left office largely disillusioned about their opposite number.
Then came Trump, who met five times with Putin and worked to keep what was discussed secret even from his top national security aides.
In public, though, Trump repeatedly had warm words for Putin and cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help him.
“He just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said at a joint news conference after they met in Helsinki in July 2018. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
For Trump, the ultimate recalibration was less about his assessment of Putin and more about the domestic politics of Russia, which required a harder line and led him to boast “there’s never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been.”
What about Putin himself?
In a late-March television appearance he used to mock Biden’s “killer” comment with a schoolyard retort, the Russian leader laid out his perspective on relations with the West.
“We will work with them in the areas in which we are interested on terms that we consider advantageous to ourselves,” he said. “They will have to deal with that regardless of all their attempts to stop us developing, regardless of the sanctions, and regardless of the insults.”
What’s happening now
Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the social network’s decision to ban Trump four months after Capitol riot, but also gave Facebook six months to review the decision, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Cat Zakrzewski and Heather Kelly report.
The platform banned Trump indefinitely following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Today’s “binding ruling by the 20-member Oversight Board, which is largely independent and funded by the social network, could set the stage for a new political era online, reshaping the way speech by public officials and other powerful people is moderated by social media companies.”
“The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account,” the board wrote. “However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension. It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.”
“Over the past few months, members spanning time zones from Taiwan to San Francisco connected on videoconference calls to pore over more than 9,000 public comments on the matter, including from Trump himself, according to people familiar with the board,” our colleagues write. “If the board is viewed as a success, it could also become a template for new laws governing social media companies, said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). He said that Congress should consider requiring social media companies of a certain size to have their own independent board focused on these decisions.”
Americans are split on whether Trump should be barred from social media. “Some 49% of U.S. adults say Trump’s accounts should be permanently banned from social media, while half say they should not be. But views are deeply divided along partisan lines,” a new Pew Research Center survey found.
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Lunchtime reads from The Post
- “Democrats prepare for all-in Florida fight against rising GOP star Ron DeSantis,” by Michael Scherer: “Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison, who recently authorized $20 million in spending in states such as Florida before 2022, has taken to taunting DeSantis on Twitter, while promising that ‘we are going to be doing everything we can’ to defeat him.' ... Republicans say they expect an onslaught of outside money into the state next year, given DeSantis’s potential as a presidential contender if Trump does not run again.”
- “The Pentagon wants to take a harder line on domestic extremism. How far can it go?” by Missy Ryan: “Pentagon officials are considering new restrictions on service members’ interactions with far-right groups, part of the military’s reckoning with extremism, but the measures could trigger legal challenges from critics who say they would violate First Amendment rights. Under a review launched by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Defense Department officials are reexamining rules governing troops’ affiliations with anti-government and white supremacist movements, ties that currently are permissible in limited circumstances.”
… and beyond
- “Can a streamlined set of safety guidelines ease the stress of indoor dining?” by the Counter’s H. Claire Brown: “As Covid-19 caseloads drop, and occupancy percentages rise, more and more diners are venturing out, which presents a host of challenges for dining rooms that have relied primarily on takeout and outdoor seating throughout the pandemic. ‘We have a demand that’s the same as our pre-pandemic 2019 numbers,’ said Steven Satterfield, executive chef and owner of Miller Union, a Southern restaurant in an old warehouse in Atlanta that opened in 2009. ‘It’s insane and it’s intense.’”
At the table
Today we’re lunching with Adriana Beltrán, the director of the Washington Office on Latin America’s Citizen Security Program, which focuses on violence prevention and judicial reform in Central America. Beltrán spoke to us about the Biden administration’s plan for the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – and the roadblocks any programs meant to address the “root causes” of migration in these countries may face. We also addressed the latest news from El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele and his allies in the National Assembly removed all justices of the constitutional chamber of the nation's Supreme Court, as well as the attorney general. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Alfaro: How do you rate what we’ve seen so far in terms of the administration's approach to Central America?
Beltrán: It has been clear from the beginning that the Biden administration wants to focus efforts more on addressing the drivers of migration than on policies to prevent migrants from arriving at the border and really figuring out how to tackle what they call the “root causes.” And I think that's positive, they’ve given priority to the issue. They appointed a special envoy for the Northern Triangle, which we haven't seen since the 80s, they created a task force for the region within USAID, they designated $310 million in emergency aid, and Biden designated the vice president to take the lead in these efforts.
My sense is that they’re looking at it in two key areas: One is figuring out how to address what they call the acute factors, immediate measures that the U.S. can support to address some of the current emergencies. The region has been hard hit by the pandemic and two back-to-back hurricanes at the end of last year that caused massive devastation and destruction. And I think that's positive, they’ve given priority to the issue.
In terms of the border, there is a need, in the short term, for the administration to work towards a more humane, orderly approach to migration, including developing legal pathways to migration and an asylum system for those seeking protection that ensures due process and compliance with our international obligations.
Alfaro: How do we avoid a situation where any programs created aren’t made permanent, or fall victim to corruption?
Beltrán: It’s important that we stop only looking at the region or treating the region from one crisis to the next. And I say that because, in the past, U.S. efforts have tended to engage with the region whenever a crisis strikes or an emergency rather than approaching and engaging the region through a sustained, committed and long-term approach. This is a challenge because you have shifts in administrations, but it is important – if we are going to work with reformers in the region, with civil society – that we try to approach this as a long-term effort. To your question, I do think priority needs to be given to addressing the weak governance, the decades of institutional neglect and systemic corruption in the region.
It's obviously important to invest in improving economic conditions and addressing the high levels of insecurity. But I do think that priority and the emphasis need to be on the governance piece because the fundamental driver to migration is the pervasive governance failures. This systemic corruption, it just affects every aspect of people's lives, from education, to having decent quality of health care, access to justice, infrastructure. It has hindered the ability of the government to respond to natural disasters or emergencies.
Studies that have looked at and evaluated previous strategies found that they key impediment to economic growth development in the region and to improving security conditions is corruption, and the fact that you're dealing with a very small but very powerful and influential group of political and economic elites that have increasingly colluded with criminal groups that have impeded the adoption of structural reform.
Alfaro: Guatemala has surfaced as the “point country” in these discussions with Harris, while Honduras and El Salvador have not been participating as actively. How does the U.S. go around negotiating and engaging with these governments, whose leaders have recently been embroiled in controversy?
Beltrán: It’s a challenge, but here’s where I stress that the administration needs to be clear who their partners are and that partners are not just governments. The region has a tremendous range of civil society organizations that I would say have been the main counterweight to government corruption. They have, in many ways, spearheaded many of the initiatives and reforms in the region. It’s those voices who want to work with the U.S. that I think could benefit from the support of the U.S. That also includes independent media, because in the last several years you’ve seen in particular an increase of attacks against independent journalists and they have played an important role in investigating and shedding light in many of the corruption scandals.
Alfaro: El Salvador’s Bukele earned the scorn of the international community — including Harris and State Department Secretary Antony Blinken — this weekend when his party moved to remove the nation’s top judges. How does this hinder any potential for collaboration?
Beltrán: In one night, Bukele and his allies in the assembly seized control of two independent bodies of government that have been a check on his power in the past. They effectively erased the separation of powers and independence of the judiciary. This underscores again why the administration needs to prioritize the issue of governance and building effective democratic institutions. I do think that, in addition to the strong statements from the international community, we need to have a strong response and to just make it very clear that attacks against the independence of the judiciary, against democratic institutions will not be tolerated. That might mean, as some members of Congress have called for, withholding and reassessing our assistance to the Salvadoran justice sector, to the security institutions to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not being used to promote narrow interests.
The Biden agenda
Biden will speak today about the implementation of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
- “His planned address from the State Dining Room of the White House follows the announcement of a new goal: ensuring that 70 percent of adults have received at least one coronavirus vaccine shot by the Fourth of July,” John Wagner reports. He also said in remarks yesterday that he wants “60 percent of adults to be fully vaccinated by the holiday.”
Strongmen who got cozy with Trump are now getting the cold shoulder from Biden.
- “Trump invited Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to Mar-a-Lago, bantered with Polish President Andrzej Duda about building a ‘Fort Trump’ to house American forces yanked from ally Germany, and showered North Korean President Kim Jong Un with flowery flattery, a summit invite and a public handshake. Biden hasn’t so much as spoken to them on the phone,” Anne Gearan writes. “The cold shoulder is part of a strategy in keeping with Biden’s promise as a candidate that he would not coddle dictators or mistreat U.S. allies. More than three months into his term, leaders on both sides of that divide are still adjusting.”
- “Biden has held 29 known calls with leaders thus far. None of them were with the leaders of Hungary, Egypt and the Philippines, who Trump had praised. The administration’s strategy prizes the rebuilding of bedrock alliances such as those with South Korea and Japan, both menaced by North Korea. The second step of that strategy is locking arms with allies to confront what Biden has identified as larger threats from China and Russia, administration officials said.”
Quote of the day
“I missed you so much,” said Sandra Ortíz, a Mexican migrant who was separated from her son by the Trump administration for three years, seven months and four days, upon seeing him again. They are among the first families separated at the border reunited by the Biden administration. Her son, Bryan, was 15 when they were separated. He is almost 19 now. He was waiting for her holding balloons that said “Best Mom Ever.”
The future of the GOP
Trump is supporting Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) in her bid to replace Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the No. 3 leader among House Republicans.
- “Cheney could be ousted as conference chairwoman as early as next week as she faces blowback for her continued criticism of Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 takeover of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters and for countering his false contention that last year’s election was stolen from him,” Wagner and Marianna Sotomayor report. “The person who confirmed Trump’s support of Stefanik requested anonymity to discuss a decision that has yet to be formally announced.”
- Trump also lashed out last night at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former vice president Mike Pence in a statement as he tried to counter Cheney for having said the 2020 presidential election was not stolen from him, Wagner reports. “Had Mike Pence referred the information on six states (only need two) back to State Legislatures, and had gutless and clueless MINORITY Leader Mitch McConnell (he blew two seats in Georgia that never should have been lost) fought to expose all of the corruption that was presented at the time, with more found since, we would have had a far different Presidential result, and our Country would not be turning into a socialist nightmare!” Trump said.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) is also backing Stefanik.
- “House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker Pelosi and President Biden’s radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that, which is why Whip Scalise has pledged to support her for Conference Chair,” said Lauren Fine, Scalise’s spokeswoman, Wagner reports.
- “House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appeared to give the move his blessing Tuesday in hot-mic comments caught ahead of an interview on Fox News in which he mentioned that other Republicans are questioning Cheney’s ability to carry out her duties. ‘I think she’s got real problems,’ McCarthy was heard saying. ‘I’ve had it with … I’ve had it with her. You know, I’ve lost confidence.’”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said the GOP leadership is most offended by Cheney’s refusal to join them in advancing the falsehoods spread by Trump.
- “I think Liz Cheney’s greatest offense apparently is she is principled and she believes in the truth,” the Maryland Democrat told The Post’s Karen Tumulty today. “She’s obviously a very conservative Republican from the state of Wyoming, so it’s not a question of ideology. It’s a question of cult of personality — that if you’re not 1,000 percent with Donald Trump, somehow you’re not a good Republican, you’re not worthy of being in leadership.”
- “I think it’s a real weakness in the Republican Party that they have jettisoned their principles, jettisoned adherence to the truth and simply pandered to one individual: Donald Trump, who I would suggest was a terrible U.S. president who had no respect for the truth,” Hoyer said.
Democratic departures from the House have Republicans salivating.
- “In the past two months, five House Democrats from competitive districts have announced they won’t seek re-election next year. They include Representative Charlie Crist of Florida, who on Tuesday launched a campaign for governor, and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, who will run for the Senate seat being vacated by Rob Portman,” the New York Times’s Reid Epstein and Patricia Mazzei report. “Three other Democrats will leave seats vacant in districts likely to see significant change once they are redrawn using the data from the 2020 Census, and several more are weighing bids for higher office.”
- “Democrats face other vexing challenges as well: Republican legislators control redistricting in key states where they can draw boundaries in their favor. Reapportionment alone — with red states picking up additional seats — could provide Republicans the seats they need to control the House.”
- “The largest concentration of competitive and vacant House seats may be in Central Florida. In addition to Mr. Crist ... two other Democratic representatives, Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park and Val Demings of Orlando, are weighing runs for statewide office. All three now hold seats in districts Biden carried handily last November, but with Republicans in control of Florida’s redistricting process, the state’s congressional map is likely to soon be much better for Republicans than it is now.”
- “ ‘House Democrats are sprinting to the exits because they know their chances of retaining the majority grow dimmer by the day,’ said Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. ... Along with Florida, Republicans are expected to draw themselves more favorable congressional districts in Georgia, where Democrats hold two competitive districts in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, and Texas, which will add two new seats.”
Hot on the right
Trump finally unveiled his own online social platform. The site is named “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump.” It’s the Trump team’s response to Twitter and Facebook’s bans on the former president. Trump has already posted videos and comments there, including a May 3 attack on Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, in which he called her a “big-shot warmonger” who he predicted will "never run in a Wyoming election again!”
Hot on the left
While many on the right celebrated Trump's new site, some on the left noted that it is basically a blog. And he will likely continue profiting from it, our fact checker Glenn Kessler noted:
British comedian David Baddiel:
New U.S. climate ‘normals’, visualized
On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an updated set of climate averages for the contiguous United States based on the 30-year period from 1991 to 2020. It refers to these averages as “climatenormals,” and updates them once every decade. Compared with previous 30-year periods, the climate has turned unambiguously warmer, Bob Henson and Jason Samenow report.
Today in Washington
Biden will deliver remarks on his administration’s implementation of the American Rescue Plan at 2 p.m.
Harris will meet with small businesses at 1 p.m. in Providence, R.I. At 2, she will meet with women-led small businesses along with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
Seth Meyers gave a few good reasons we should keep some of our new work from home ways after the pandemic: