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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

U.S. escalates Ukraine commitments, Russia ramps up threats

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1945, U.S. troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

The big idea

Biden acknowledges cost of action in Ukraine, warns of price of inaction

President Biden began his term hoping for “a stable and predictable relationship” with Moscow. This week, he stepped up military aid that Ukrainians are using to kill Russians and found himself scolding America’s old Cold War foe for raising the possibility of nuclear war.

“No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility that they’d use that,” Biden said Thursday after days of veiled, vague, and very worrisome threats from the Kremlin about prospects Ukraine could become a world war. “It’s irresponsible.”

Worries that what Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissively dubbed a “special military operation” could escalate to the point of bringing Washington and Moscow in direct conflict and, through error or desperation, go nuclear, have hung over the Ukraine war since it began.

Biden himself has repeatedly raised the specter of “World War III” to dismiss specific requests for help from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, like a NATO-enforced no-fly zone. And Putin very publicly placed his country’s nuclear forces on high alert at the end of February, a step U.S. officials mostly shrugged off as political theater.

A shift

This week felt different. In addition to raining bombs and missiles the width and breadth of Ukraine, Russia finally pulled a different trigger, cutting off gas flows to Poland and Bulgaria and saying other clients could be next, a use of power it had only heretofore alluded to over the past two months.

And the United States and its allies sharply stepped up their provision of arms to Ukraine, while Congress even revived the World War II Lend-Lease law, an arrangement that kept the country out of direct combat for much of 1941 — but very much in the fight against Nazi Germany.

  • “The cost of this fight is not cheap,” Biden said as he sent Congress a $33-billion request for five months of arms and aid to Ukraine, “but caving to aggression is going to be more costly if we allow it to happen.”

At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki declined to put a timetable or total dollar ceiling on assistance to Ukraine and underlined “a call to the world that we need to be in this for the long term.”

My colleague Annabelle Timsit chronicled Russia’s increasingly vehement war of words with the West, which it warned “not to ‘test our patience’ after the United States and Britain publicly backed Ukraine’s right to strike Russian territory following a spate of mysterious fires.”

“Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the West of openly encouraging Ukraine to attack Russia — and said Thursday that countries should take seriously Moscow’s warnings that any attack will lead to a ‘tough response.’”

“‘The West openly calls on Kyiv to attack Russia, using, among other things, weapons received from NATO countries,’ spokesperson Maria Zakharova told journalists in Moscow. ‘We advise you not to further test our patience,’ she said.

Her comments on Thursday came a day after Putin, in remarks to Russian lawmakers at the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, threatened unspecified retaliation against unnamed countries.

  • “If anyone intends to intervene from the outside and create a strategic threat to Russia that is unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning-fast,” he said. “We have the tools we need for this, the likes of which no one else can claim at this point. We will not just brag; we will use them if necessary.”

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had declared NATO is “going to war with Russia through a proxy and arming that proxy,” and risking an escalation that could trigger nuclear war. He also said arms deliveries to Ukraine from NATO countries are a “legitimate target.” A Russian strike inside a NATO country could trigger the alliance’s mutual defense pact.

Going there on nukes

As for nuclear war, Lavrov said in an interview with Russian state television, “the risk is serious, real. It should not be underestimated.” But, he added, “Under no circumstances should a third world war be allowed to happen … there can be no winners in a nuclear war.”

Back in March, Biden had said “no,” Americans don’t need to worry about nuclear war. On Thursday, he gave a longer answer.

“Despite the disturbing rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin, the facts are plain for everybody to see: We’re not attacking Russia,” he told reporters. “We’re helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.”

Referring to Moscow’s nuclear warnings, Biden said: “They do concern me because it shows the desperation that Russia is feeling” now that Putin’s plans for a lightning war and speedy toppling of the government in Kyiv have proven to be an “abject failure.”

Moscow’s rhetoric is getting more heated. The West is ramping up its arms flow. The Ukraine conflict is growing more dangerous for everyone.

What’s happening now

Vaccines for young kids could be available in June, FDA official says

“A top Food and Drug Administration official pledged Friday not to delay the rollout of coronavirus vaccines for the youngest children and said at least one of the two shots under review could become available as soon as June,” Laurie McGinley and Carolyn Y. Johnson report.

The border wall Trump called unclimbable is taking a grim toll

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they do not tally deaths and injuries from resulting from such falls. But new statistics published Friday by UC San Diego physicians in the medical journal JAMA Surgery provide one of the first attempts to measure the toll,” Nick Miroff reports.

  • “Since 2019, when the barrier’s height was raised to 30 feet along much of the border in California, the number of patients arriving at the UC San Diego Medical Center’s trauma ward after falling off the structure has jumped fivefold, to 375, the physicians found.”

Inflation hits record high of 7.5% in countries using euro

“Inflation hit a record in April for the 19 countries that use the euro as skyrocketing fuel prices boosted by the war in Ukraine weigh on the region’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic,” the Associated Press reports.

The war in Ukraine

Cracks emerge in Russian elite as tycoons start to bemoan invasion

“In interviews, several Russian billionaires, senior bankers, a senior official and former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, described how they and others had been blindsided by their increasingly isolated president and feel largely impotent to influence him because his inner circle is dominated by a handful of hard-line security officials,” Catherine Belton and Greg Miller report.

  • “The complaints aired in public so far are mostly muted and focused primarily on the government’s proposed economic response to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. No one has directly criticized Putin.”

More key updates:

Follow our live coverage of the war here

Lunchtime reads from The Post

How Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wages his culture wars

“Perhaps no politician has been as effective at waging today’s culture wars as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R),” Amber Phillips writes.

“This is all happening in Florida, a state that’s closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. But while controversial, many of his stances seem to resonate with some mainstream voters. DeSantis’s approval ratings are actually in the mid-50s, and he looks in a strong position to win reelection in November.”

Here’s how he’s doing it:

  • He defends opposition to critical race theory, and casts it as a mainstream concern
  • He closely ties critical race theory to LGBTQ culture wars
  • He frames these culture wars as vital battles for the country

Trump officials muzzled CDC on church covid guidance, emails confirm

“Trump White House officials in May 2020 overrode public health advice urging churches to consider virtual religious services as the coronavirus spread, delivering a messaging change sought by the president’s supporters, according to emails from former top officials released by a House panel on Friday,” Dan Diamond reports.

  • “Although the Trump administration’s efforts to alter the CDC’s guidance for religious groups have been reported before, the emails contain new details about the White House’s efforts to deliver on a priority for faith communities that represented key support for President Donald Trump. Multiple religious groups in early 2020 fought public health orders to limit mass gatherings and appealed to the White House for assistance, with some churches taking their legal challenges to the Supreme Court.”

… and beyond

An Oval Office visit and a Moscow trip: Inside the Reed deal

“The worst possible moment for bringing Trevor Reed home turned out to be the best,” the Associated Press's Eric Tucker reports.

With U.S.-Russian relations at their lowest point in decades, it seemed an improbable time to hope for the release of Reed, a former Marine detained in Russia for almost three years. Yet this week the Biden administration completed the type of transaction it had earlier seemed resistant to, exchanging Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug trafficker serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut.”

  • “How the war — and the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations — affected the deal isn’t clear. U.S. officials stressed that the negotiations for Reed’s release were narrow in scope, focused squarely on the prisoners and not on Russia’s war and not reflective of any broader diplomatic engagement. But while the timing of the deal was startling, it’s also clear that the groundwork for it had been laid before the conflict had begun.”

G.O.P. concocts fake threat: voter fraud by undocumented immigrants

“Six years after former President Donald J. Trump paved his way to the White House on nativist and xenophobic appeals to white voters, the 2,000-mile dividing line between Mexico and the United States has once again become a fixation of the Republican Party,” the New York Times's Jazmine Ulloa reports.

“But the resurgence of the issue on the right has come with a new twist: Republican leaders and candidates are increasingly claiming without basis that unauthorized immigrants are gaining access to the ballot box.”

The latest on covid

Covid deaths no longer overwhelmingly among unvaccinated as toll on elderly grows

“The pandemic’s toll is no longer falling almost exclusively on those who chose not to get shots, with vaccine protection waning over time and the elderly and immunocompromised — who are at greatest risk of succumbing to covid-19, even if vaccinated — having a harder time dodging increasingly contagious strains,” Fenit Nirappil and Dan Keating report.

The Biden agenda

White House issues infrastructure spending implementation guidance

“The White House issued guidance Friday to federal agencies in a bid to ensure effective implementation and oversight of the $1 trillion infrastructure spending law,” Reuters's David Shepardson reports.

  • “Biden wants to empower IGs — independent government watchdogs — to ensure appropriate oversight of the big government spending plan approved in November.”

The White House tries to adjust to changing economy

“The administration has faced a longer list of unusual economic hurdles and curveballs that few of its advisers saw coming — snarled supply chains, an erratic stock market, an international energy crunch and, most recently, commodity shocks resulting from war in Europe. The most obvious and dangerous new challenge has been the fastest price hikes in four decades, as inflation emerged with a force not seen since the 1970s,” Jeff Stein reports.

Deputy comms director to depart White House

“The deputy White House communications director, Pili Tobar, is departing her role for the private sector,” Axios's Sarah Mucha reports.

  • “Tobar’s departure is one of several reported in recent weeks as the administration completes its first year and the White House braces for a difficult midterm season. White House press secretary Jen Psaki is reportedly heading to MSNBC.”

Biden is exploring using Russian money to rebuild Ukraine

“The Biden administration is weighing options for directing tens of billions of dollars in frozen Russian government assets in the United States to the rebuilding of Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Thursday,” Roll Call's Rachel Oswald reports.

“To do so, however, will likely take an act of Congress and could pose risks to U.S. taxpayers in the long run.”

GDP, visualized

“The U.S. economy unexpectedly shrank at a 1.4 percent annualized rate in the first three months of 2022 after more than a year of rapid growth, according to a Bureau of Economic Analysis report released Thursday. The new data is fueling concerns about a recession in the future amid steady inflationary pressures and uncertainty over the war in Ukraine,” our colleague Abha Bhattarai reports.

Hot on the left

How N.Y. Democrats lost a critical redistricting battle

“When an independent redistricting commission failed to reach consensus, Democratic leaders decided to make their own maps and risk a lawsuit,” the NYT's Nicholas Fandos reports. That maneuver imploded this week.

“In a sharply worded decision, the New York State Court of Appeals said that the Legislature’s actions violated the State Constitution, accusing Democratic leaders of placing partisan interests above the will of the voters who, in 2014, created the commission and outlawed partisan gerrymandering.”

Hot on the right

Inside the House Freedom Caucus’ identity crisis

“Interviews with more than 40 Republicans — including 30 lawmakers, 16 of them in the Freedom Caucus — paint a picture of a group that shapeshifted as the GOP itself realigned during Trump’s presidency, becoming more populist and nationalist, but less bound by policy principles,” Politico's Olivia Beavers reports.

“Some of the people closest to the group’s complicated origin story warn that if it doesn’t return to its roots, moving away from firebrands who are more likely to cause a stir than sponsor a bill, its influence risks waning just as the GOP reclaims the majority.”

Today in Washington

Biden will meet with inspectors general at 3:15 p.m. to discuss oversight, accountability and transparency.

In closing

FOIA redactions simply know no bounds

Thanks for reading. See you next week.