with Mariana Alfaro

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President Biden declared Wednesday he was “not confident” of changing Vladimir Putin’s ways and admitted his cautious remarks about pulling U.S.-Russia relations up from their lowest point in years amounted to putting on “an optimistic front.”

“This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest,” he told reporters.

Biden’s skeptical remarks, made in a solo news conference after their first summit and later on the tarmac near Air Force One, broke with decades of presidents predicting they would charm, cajole or cow their counterparts in Moscow.

Those overly sunny diagnoses have blinded American leaders to just who they’re dealing with in the Kremlin, with unhappy consequences for U.S. interests to say nothing of people in Moscow’s “near abroad” like Ukraine and Georgia.

President Barack Obama had gushed to Putin in July 2009 about the “extraordinary work” he’d done in office and their “excellent opportunity” to reset relations, eight years after George W. Bush set the modern standard for regrettable Putin assessments.

“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue," Bush said. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue. … And that's the beginning of a very constructive relationship.”

While Obama (sanctions on Iran, help with troop withdrawals from Afghanistan) and Bush (post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism cooperation) each got some help from Putin, both came to regret their sunny early rhetoric.

Biden may have had both in mind as he relayed what messages he had delivered to the Russian leader and sketched out his sense of the wily former KGB officer after their summit in Geneva delivered no breakthroughs in major disputes.

The president described the behind-the-scenes dialogue as businesslike, nothing “strident,” no “hyperbolic atmosphere.”

“This is about practical, straightforward, no-nonsense decisions that we have to make or not make.”

Biden said “we'll find out within the next six months to a year” whether the summit paid dividends on new arms control efforts, the release of Americans held in Russian prisons, and getting Moscow to halt cyberattacks on U.S. targets.

He also said “there were no threats … just simple assertions,” and denied he had raised the prospects of a military response to Russian hacks or ransomware operations, but also warned of retaliation for future digital intrusions.

“I pointed out to him that we have significant cyber capability. And he knows it,” Biden told reporters. “And if, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond with cyber. He knows.

Later, he described himself conjuring up a hypothetical scenario for the Russian officials, who might justifiably have seen it as … let’s call it “threat-adjacent.”

What happens if that ransomware outfit were sitting in Florida or Maine and took action, as I said, on their single lifeline to their economy oil?” he said he asked. “That would be devastating.”

Asked in the news conference why he seemed confident of changing Russia’s behavior, considering Putin had denied any involvement in cyberattacks, Biden snapped: “I'm not confident he'll change his behavior.”

Later, in more reflective remarks on the tarmac, Biden told reporters “there’s a value to being realistic and put on an optimistic front, an optimistic face” because with pessimism “you’d guarantee nothing happens.”

The president described Putin as leading a diminished power troubled by a rising China and fretting about losing even more influence, citing an old mocking description of the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with nuclear weapons.”

You have to figure out what the other guy's self-interest is,” he said, and the Russians “want desperately to remain a major power … desperately want to be relevant.”

And this is where Biden’s assessment of Russia, and Putin, took a glossier hue.

“I found it matters to almost every world leader no matter where they're from how they're perceived, their standing in the world. It matters to them. It matters to them in terms of their support at home as well,” Biden said.

One consequence of Russia tolerating or carrying out cyberattacks is “his credibility worldwide shrinks.”

“How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections directly of other countries, and everybody knew it? What would it be like if we engaged in activities that he is engaged in?  It diminishes the standing of a country that is desperately trying to make sure it maintains its standing as a major world power,” Biden said.

Leaving aside that the United States during the Cold War interfered in elections all over the world and supported bloody coups around the globe, there’s no evidence Putin puts much stock in that sort of reputational damage.

He directed Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, its invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and subsequent annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Moscow of meddling in the 2016 and 2020 elections, and of carrying out the massive SolarWinds hack as well as tolerating a wave of recent criminal ransomware assaults from Russian soil.

It may be the sorts of things Biden says cost Russia prestige, Putin sees as making Moscow “relevant” and a power with which the West must reckon.

What’s happening now

The Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to Obamacare, saying Republican-led states do not have the legal standing to try to upend the law. “Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the court’s 7 to 2 decision that preserves the law that provides millions of Americans with health coverage. Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M Gorsuch dissented,” Robert Barnes reports. “The key issue this time was whether a 2017 decision by Congress to remove the penalty for not buying health insurance — the so-called individual mandate — meant that the law was unconstitutional and should be wiped from the books. That would end popular provisions such as keeping young adults on their parents’ insurance policies, and ensuring coverage for those with preexisting medical conditions. But the court said the states did not have the legal standing to bring the challenge.” 

The court also said Philadelphia was wrong to end a contract to provide foster care services to a religious organization that refuses to work with same-sex couples, Barnes reports. “All nine justices agreed with the outcome, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for a majority of six in saying Philadelphia violated the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion in ending a contract with Catholic Social Services to screen potential foster care parents.”

Biden will sign a bill today making Juneteenth a federal holiday, which means federal employees will get Friday off, John Wagner reports. Yesterday, the House approved legislation making the day that marks the end of slavery in Texas a federal holiday 415-to-14. The Senate passed the bill suddenly and unanimously on Tuesday. 

Jobless claims surged back about 400,000, snapping six weeks of declines. “Americans filed 412,000 initial unemployment claims, the Labor Department reported,” Aaron Gregg reports. “The new numbers mark an increase of 37,000 from the 375,000 reported the week before, pushing the tally back above the 400,000 threshold amid labor shortages and a moderate slowdown in vaccination rates. The job market still has a long way to go before reaching its pre-pandemic vitality, when weekly jobless claims stood at 256,000.”

A “mega-heatwave” is peaking in the West, breaking records and intensifying droughts and fires. “One of the most extreme heat waves ever observed in the Western U.S. this early in the season is near its climax. The punishing blast of heat, which began Sunday, has set hundreds of records while simultaneously worsening a historically severe drought, intensifying fires and degrading air quality. About 40 million Americans have endured triple-digit heat and more than 50 million have been under excessive-heat warnings this week,” Jason Samenow and Diana Leonard report. “While it’s just mid-June and the hottest time of the year is historically still weeks away, temperatures have matched their highest ever observed levels in parts of Utah, Wyoming and Montana. Salt Lake City, Casper, Wyo., and Billings, Mont., all made history Tuesday, soaring to 107, 101, and 108 degrees, respectively.” 

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Ransomware claims are roiling an entire segment of the insurance industry,” by Rachel Lerman and Gerrit de Vynck: “Ransomware attacks ... have increased in frequency and severity over the past two years. According to blockchain research firm Chainalysis, ransom payments from companies increased 341 percent to a total of $412 million during 2020. ... That’s pushing insurance carriers to reevaluate how much coverage they can afford to offer and how much they have to charge clients to do so. Underwriters are demanding to see detailed proof of clients’ cybersecurity measures in ways they never have before. For example, not using multifactor authentication, which requires a user to verify themselves in multiple ways, might result in a rejection.”
  • Hong Kong police raid newspaper offices, arrest editors, executives under security law,” by Shibani Mahtani: “Police on Thursday raided the Apple Daily newspaper, known for its support for Hong Kong's democracy movement, and arrested five executives, including three top editors, on suspicion of violating the city's national security law. Authorities also froze the tabloid's assets. The early-morning operation highlighted the authorities’ resolve to shut down any residual space for dissent, including silencing media critical of the Chinese government. Press freedom is supposed to be guaranteed under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.”
  • China launches first astronauts to its new space station, as race with U.S. heats up,” by Michael Miller: “The morning rocket launch in northwest China sent a spacecraft carrying three astronauts into Earth’s orbit, where it docked with the still-under-construction space station later in the day. The liftoff, which Chinese officials called a ‘complete success,’ marks the first time in five years that China has sent a crewed mission to space. It comes amid a flurry of Chinese achievements in space that have spurred the United States to speed up some of its own plans.”

… and beyond

  • When the Pentagon visits Silicon Valley,” by the American Prospect’s Jonathan Guyer: “Few people in the Biden administration have as much personal experience with the dangers of surveillance technology as Colin Kahl. ... Kahl is the number three official in the Pentagon and oversees big-picture planning. As tech companies strengthen their relationships with Washington, leaders like Kahl have the chance to prioritize civil liberties and put in place guardrails to ensure that the kind of spying that happened to him doesn’t happen to others. But instead, Kahl appears to be brokering deals with the very tech companies that facilitate this activity.”
  • The son of Rudy is working out his father issues on the road to Albany,” by New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi: “Andrew Giuliani was holding a silver spoon. He just was. There’s no getting around it. ... Giuliani, who is 35 years old, spent his early childhood on the Upper East Side, attended prep school in a tony Jersey suburb and college in North Carolina. ... He cites as qualifying work experience his stint as a professional golfer; the four years he spent in the Trump administration, where he served in the Office of Public Liaison and as a special assistant to the president; and the seven weeks he was professionally a pundit on Newsmax. ... But Trump is not happy with what Giuliani has been telling the press about their relationship.”

The Biden agenda

The Biden administration will announce a $3.2 billion investment for a pill to fight viruses. 
  • “Borrowing from the model used to create drugs that transformed HIV from a death sentence into a manageable disease, the Biden administration plans to announce Thursday a $3.2 billion plan to stock the medicine cabinet with drugs that would be ready to treat future viral threats — whether a hemorrhagic fever, influenza or another coronavirus,” Carolyn Johnson reports.
  • “The $3.2 billion represents a multiyear investment to jump-start basic science research to develop new drugs and test whether existing drugs show promise. The funding will support clinical research and manufacturing. The focus initially is on this coronavirus but will expand into collaborative drug discovery programs focused on viruses that have the potential to spark a pandemic. At the same time, the government has started placing preorders for antiviral drugs for this pandemic — before they have been shown to work. It’s a strategy similar to the one used to encourage vaccine development.”
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is carefully navigating an inflation test. 
  • “The stakes of Yellen’s public economic posture only intensified Wednesday, when she testified to Congress that inflation is likely to remain transitory hours before the Federal Reserve dramatically increased its inflation projections for the year,” Jeff Stein reports. “Both Yellen and Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell made clear that the economic outlook remains fluid because of uncertainty caused by the pandemic and that they see inflation as likely to subside next year. But the next few months of the economic recovery will be crucial to the legacy of the treasury secretary, who is widely viewed by administration officials as Biden’s leading macroeconomic voice.”
  • “She has proved to be a far more deft dealmaker than many critics expected, given her lack of experience in high-stakes corporate or congressional negotiations. Yellen and her international tax lead, Itai Grinberg, recently deployed a ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy with the six other international finance ministers in the Group of Seven. ... In navigating heavily male congressional and business arenas, some observers say, she makes a point of praising men’s observations where consistent with her positions — careful to avoid alienating allies, while simultaneously standing firmly behind her own carefully considered arguments.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va) outlined demands on voting legislation, creating an opening for a potential Democratic compromise. 
  • “A three-page memo circulated by Manchin’s office this week indicates the West Virginia centrist’s willingness to support key provisions of the For the People Act, the marquee Democratic bill that the House passed in March — including provisions mandating at least two weeks of early voting and measures meant to eliminate partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts,” Mike DeBonis reports. “But Manchin’s memo also sketches out several provisions that have historically been opposed by most Democrats, including backing an ID requirement for voters and the ability of local election officials to purge voter rolls using other government records.”
  • “Prominent voting rights activist Stacey Abrams said Thursday that she could ‘absolutely’ support compromises floated by [Manchin],” Wagner and DeBonis report. “Abrams said it is a common misperception, fueled by Republicans, that Democrats outright oppose voter ID. Rather, she said, she and others object to restrictive provisions that are ‘designed to keep people out of the process.’ ‘No one has ever objected to having to prove who you are to vote,’ she said. ‘What [Manchin] is proposing makes sense.’”
An infrastructure update: The bipartisan pitch is gaining steam. 
  • “The initial framework, written by the likes of Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and seven other senators, falls far short of the sweeping infrastructure proposal that Biden has pitched, yet aims to try to satisfy the president’s hunger for bipartisanship,” Seung Min Kim and Tony Romm report. “But their efforts received a big boost Wednesday, when 11 more senators joined the original 10 and said they supported the still-unreleased blueprint of a deal. The group now includes 11 Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats. All told, they account for a fifth of the entire chamber.”
  • “Even as they rallied support for their plan, however, Senate Democrats huddled privately Wednesday to devise a path forward for trillions of dollars in additional spending in infrastructure improvements and other economic initiatives that may not make it into a bipartisan deal.”

Quote of the day

“I'm not a no. I'm not a yes,” Manchin told reporters. 

Biden apologized for snapping at a CNN reporter over her questions on Putin. 
  • “As Biden turned to walk off the stage following a news conference in Geneva after his summit with Putin, a reporter shouted out one final question. ‘Why are you so confident [Putin] will change his behavior, Mr. President?’ CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked,” Katie Shepherd reports. “The president, who had already turned away from the clutch of journalists, threw up his hands and started back toward the reporters while wagging his finger. ‘What the hell? … When did I say I was confident?’ Biden said as he headed back toward Collins, before launching into a tense back-and-forth with the reporter while defending his approach with the Russian president.”
  • “As his exchange with Collins went viral, some critics jumped to defend the reporter, while others argued that her question unfairly reflected the president’s earlier statements. Soon after the exchange, Biden issued a mea culpa for his tone. ‘I owe my last questioner an apology,’ the president told reporters on the tarmac as he readied to board Air Force One on Wednesday afternoon. ‘I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy with the last answer I gave.’”
The Biden administration canceled Trump’s limits on asylum eligibility. 
  • “Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday rolled back a pair of Trump administration legal decisions that had narrowed access to the U.S. asylum system, where caseloads have ballooned in recent years from soaring numbers of claims,” Nick Miroff reports. “Garland’s decisions vacated Trump-era rulings that had limited asylum eligibility for immigrants fleeing gangs or gender-based attacks, which his administration characterized as ‘private’ forms of violence that did not constitute membership in a persecuted social group.”

Hot on the left

“Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.), who voted against awarding police officers the Congressional Gold Medal for their bravery in protecting the U.S. Capitol against violent, pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6, refused to shake hands with D.C. police officer Michael Fanone on Wednesday,” Colby Itkowitz and Peter Hermann report. “Fanone, joined by Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, returned to the Capitol on Wednesday, the day after 21 House Republicans voted against the Gold Medal resolution, in an effort to meet them and tell his story. He said he recognized Clyde at an elevator and that he and Dunn hopped in with the congressman.” Fanone said he extended his hand for a greeting after introducing himself. “I’m a D.C. police officer and I fought to defend the Capitol on Jan. 6,” Fanone told him. “His response was nothing,” Fanone said. “He turned away from me, pulled out his cellphone and started thumbing through the apps.” 

Fanone told Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) about the encounter: 

Hot on the right

In a secret recording, a little-known GOP congressional candidate in one of Florida’s most competitive districts threatened to send a Russian and Ukrainian "hit squad” against a fellow Republican opponent to make her “disappear.” “During a 30-minute call with a conservative activist that was recorded before he became a candidate, William Braddock repeatedly warned the activist to not support GOP candidate Anna Paulina Luna in the Republican primary for a Tampa Bay-area congressional seat because he had access to assassins. The seat is being vacated by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who is running for governor,” Politico’s Marc Caputo reports. “ ‘I really don't want to have to end anybody's life for the good of the people of the United States of America,’ Braddock said at one point in the conversation last week. ... ‘That will break my heart. But if it needs to be done, it needs to be done. Luna is a f---ing speed bump in the road. She's a dead squirrel you run over every day when you leave the neighborhood.’ ” 

Toxic cargo from container ship fire, visualized

More than two weeks after a blazing 610-foot container ship lit up the coastline of Sri Lanka, most of the X-Press Pearl, a four-month-old Singapore-flagged container ship, has settled on the bottom of the sea. Close to 1,500 containers were aboard the ship. According to X-Press Feeders, 81 of them contained dangerous goods, including 25 metric tons of nitric acid. The Post obtained a copy of the manifest for the ship, which details all of the cargo on board.

Today in Washington

Biden will sign a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday today at 3:30 p.m. He and Vice President Harris will give remarks. 

In closing

Seth Meyers reviewed Biden's foreign trip: