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The Daily 202

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

Secretary Austin offers an unsettling diagnosis of Putin

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 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day.

The big idea

Secretary Austin offers an unsettling diagnosis of Putin

About a week before Vladimir Putin expanded his war in Ukraine, The Daily 202 offered a kind of corrective to the common portrait of the Russian president as “the wily former KGB officer,” calculating and ruthless. He definitely is those things, we wrote, but he also believes a lot of weird stuff.

He once confronted President George W. Bush with a claim that America deliberately sent bad chicken exports to Russia. He accused Bush of firing CBS anchor Dan Rather. And there was the time he sensed a trap in President Barack Obama’s small talk about sports.

“We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” Obama joked as they met in 2013 at a resort in Northern Ireland. “And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.”

Putin, who reacted with a tense smile, responded: “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”

Nuclear anxiety

It’s a bedrock principle of international relations that nations act in their perceived self-interest. It matters very much that the perceiver-in-chief in the Kremlin is prone to believing conspiracy theories and trying to have people murdered on British soil with a military-grade nerve agent.

That’s one of the unsettling undercurrents of Western efforts to figure out whether Putin might risk using nuclear weapons as his military flees advancing Ukrainian forces. On Friday, he claimed America had set a “precedent” by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For the most part, President Biden’s administration has responded by warning Putin of “catastrophic” (but unspecified) consequences if he uses nuclear weapons, while saying the United States has not detected a shift in Russian posture that might be a prelude to the first nuclear bombing in 77 years.

  • But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin added a wrinkle on Sunday to the public analysis of how far Putin may be willing to go.

There are no checks on Mr. Putin. Just as he made the irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine, you know, he could make another decision,” Austin said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

(“To be clear, the guy who makes that decision, I mean, it’s one man,” Austin said. “But I don’t see anything right now that would lead me to believe that he has made such a decision.”)

Escalation

It seems obvious: Putin badly miscalculated his odds of success in Ukraine, overestimating his military’s ability, underestimating Ukrainian forces as well as the will of America and its allies to help them. He could miscalculate elsewhere, too. Possibly with nuclear consequences.

The defense secretary also signaled Putin’s saber-rattling wouldn’t deter Washington from helping Ukraine retake territory captured by Russia.

“We can expect that the Ukrainians will continue to move forward and attempt to take back all of the territory within their sovereign borders here,” he said. “We will continue to support them in their efforts.”

Putin has dramatically escalated the conflict over the past week — and very little has gone his way.

  • He announced plans to call up an additional 300,000 soldiers, which has sparked protests in major Russian cities and sent thousands upon thousands of Russian men fleeing into neighboring countries.
  • He announced Russia was annexing four regions of Ukraine, and signaled he would be willing to use nuclear weapons to defend them, only to watch Ukrainian forces keep Russian troops on their heels and recapture key cities and significant territory.
  • The U.S. and its allies have yet to explicitly accuse Russia of sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, but there appears to be little doubt in the West of where the blame lies.

Moscow’s poor conduct of the war has led to open recriminations in Russian media from “two powerful figures with their own armed forces fighting Ukraine,” my colleagues Missy Ryan, Robyn Dixon, and Serhiy Morgunov reported Sunday night.

“It began with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s criticisms on Saturday of Russian military commanders, and his call to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine,” they noted.

Then Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, founder of mercenary group Wagner had this to say, apparently in reference to top Russian commanders: “We should send all these bastards barefoot to the front with machine guns.”

Still, using nuclear weapons? Putin has many options before he gets there: Cyber disruptions, for instance, or strikes on the logistical hubs in places like Poland that handle shipments of weapons to Ukraine.

That would be scary enough — NATO could invoke its charter principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. It wasn’t long ago that Biden himself was describing that as a potential trigger for World War III.

Happy Monday.

What’s happening now

Biden to announce $60 million in storm preparedness funding in Puerto Rico

President Biden, during a trip Monday to see hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, plans to announce more than $60 million in federal funding to shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and create a new flood warning system to help the island better prepare for storms,” Matt Viser reports.

Openings begin in seditious conspiracy case

“Opening statements are underway in the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and other members of the extremist group who face seditious conspiracy and other charges in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol,” Rachel Weiner, Tom Jackman and Spencer S. Hsu report.

Follow our live coverage of the trial here

Iran’s supreme leader brushes anger aside, blames protests on foreigners

“In his first public comments on protests sweeping Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday characterized the unrest as ‘rioting’ instigated by foreign powers, including the United States and Israel,” Kareem Fahim reports

His comments, to police cadets at a graduation ceremony in the capital Tehran, appeared to dismiss the anger fueling the largest and most widespread protests in Iran in several years. They erupted two weeks ago after the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by members of Iran’s ‘morality police,’ allegedly for violating the Islamic Republic’s conservative dress code.”

The war in Ukraine

Russia smuggling Ukrainian grain to help pay for Putin's war

An investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series ‘Frontline’ has found the Laodicea, [a bulk cargo ship] owned by Syria, is part of a sophisticated Russian-run smuggling operation that has used falsified manifests and seaborne subterfuge to steal Ukrainian grain worth at least $530 million — cash that has helped feed President Vladimir Putin’s war machine,” the AP's Michael Biesecker, Sarah El Deeb and Beatrice Dupuy report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

An American education

[Carolyn Stewart] had been working in some of the country’s most challenging public schools for 52 years, but only in recent months had she begun to worry that the entire system of American education was at risk of failing. The United States had lost 370,000 teachers since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maine had started recruiting summer camp counselors into classrooms, Florida was relying on military veterans with no prior teaching experience, and Arizona had dropped its college-degree requirement, but Stewart was still struggling to find people willing to teach in a high-poverty district for a starting salary of $38,500 a year,” Eli Saslow reports.

… and beyond

They legitimized the myth of a stolen election — and reaped the rewards

“The most far-reaching of Mr. Trump’s ploys to overturn his defeat, the objections to the Electoral College results by so many House Republicans did more than any lawsuit, speech or rally to engrave in party orthodoxy the myth of a stolen election. Their actions that day legitimized Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede, gave new life to his claims of conspiracy and fraud and lent institutional weight to doubts about the central ritual of American democracy,” the New York Times' Steve Eder, David D. Kirkpatrick and Mike McIntire report.

Health care for transgender adults remains legal, but states are quietly trying to limit access

“Mississippi introduced a failed bill early this year to ban gender-affirming care for anyone under 21. In Oklahoma, legislation with the same age limit fell through last year. Missouri tried and failed to pass a bill this year banning care for trans youth that included a vaguely written clause that could have affected adults: Legislators wrote that state health insurance plans renewed in 2023 would not be required to cover gender transition procedures without specifying any age requirements,” the 19th's Orion Rummler reports.

The Biden agenda

Biden heading to Puerto Rico, Florida to tour hurricane damage

It will be Biden’s first trip as president to Puerto Rico, and could provide a contrast from a memorable visit by President Donald Trump in 2017 when he tossed rolls of paper towels into a cheering crowd in San Juan, after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria,” Matt Viser reports.

“It is unclear whether on his trip to Florida the president will meet with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who has been a political adversary but also someone he has spoken to several times amid the storm.”

Larry Summers has President Biden’s ear — but not always his support

Biden’s moves — inviting Summers into the Oval Office, then picking and choosing from his advice — reflect the broader White House strategy over the last year toward the influential economist and onetime Harvard president, whose support the administration covets but whose counsel it sometimes rejects,” Jeff Stein and Tyler Pager report.

Harris, on Asia trip, promotes a political priority — women’s rights

“It was a balancing act for Harris. Japan and South Korea are strong allies that the United States considers pivotal to countering China’s growing aggressiveness, and she came to strengthen ties with the two countries, not alienate the men who lead them. But at seemingly every turn, the vice president sought to highlight the chasm that exists between genders here and provide living proof that a more equitable path exists,” Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Michelle Ye Hee Lee report.

Biden pledge to make federal fleet electric faces slow start

“President Joe Biden, a self-described ‘car guy,’ often promises to lead by example on climate change by moving swiftly to convert the sprawling U.S. government fleet to zero-emission electric vehicles. But efforts to eliminate gas-powered vehicles from the fleet have lagged,” the AP's Hope Yen, Matthew Daly and David Sharp report.

Where the D.C. snipers attacked 20 years ago, visualized

In the course of three weeks, their indiscriminate sneak attacks would leave 10 dead and three injured in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, crippling the terrified region and sparking a massive manhunt that was continually stymied and, in some ways, critically flawed,” Paul Duggan and Michael E. Ruane report.

Hot on the left

Apocalypse now: Democrats embrace a dark midterm message

“With a tough midterm election about six weeks away, many Democrats have largely settled on a campaign message, and it’s not one that simply emphasizes their accomplishments. Instead, it amounts to a stark warning: If Republicans take power, they will establish a dystopia that cripples democracy and eviscerates abortion rights and other freedoms,” Yasmeen Abutaleb reports.

Hot on the right

Nevada Democrats see signs of nightmare scenario: Latino voters staying home

“Nevada Democrats have held up their state as a national testing ground for how to win Latino voters in 2024,” NBC News' Natasha Korecki reports.

But with only 37 days until the midterm elections, there are warning signs: At the doors, on the phones and on the streets, Latinos are threatening to stay home. And that is despite the presence of the first-ever Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto, at the top of the ballot.”

Today in Washington

Biden is in Puerto Rico today.

At 2:30 p.m., he will get a briefing and deliver remarks.

The Bidens will visit Centro Sor Isolina Ferré Aguayo School at 3:30 p.m.

At 4:50 p.m., The Bidens will leave Puerto Rico for D.C. They will arrive at the White House at 8:55 p.m.

In closing

Post reporter sees ‘running of the Congress’ after votes end

Congressional reporter Paul Kane captured House lawmakers sprinting from the Capitol on Sept. 30 before traveling back to their districts to run for midterms.

Congressional reporter Paul Kane captured House lawmakers sprinting from the Capitol on Sept. 30 before traveling back to their districts to run for midterms. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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