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Politics chat: Biden negotiates with Putin; COVID-19 trending down; inflation up


The pressure is intense as Russia continues to threaten Ukraine. And this weekend, a lot of the diplomacy is happening on the phone. Today it's President Biden on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. That's after Biden spent more than an hour on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday. Biden says he promised, quote, "swift and severe costs" on Russia if there's an invasion. Putin says he'll have more to say soon. So let's start there with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.


SNELL: So the Kremlin calls the alarm over a Russian invasion of Ukraine hysteria, but, right now, there are 100,000 troops prepared to do just that. So what's the situation this morning?

LIASSON: According to a senior administration official, that phone call yesterday between Biden and Putin did not clarify whether Russia is interested in pursuing its goals through diplomacy or through force. Russia, the administration says, continues to take steps on the ground in plain sight to get ready for an invasion. They call an invasion a, quote, "distinct possibility," perhaps as soon as this week. The U.S. sent an additional 3,000 forces to Poland, and the U.S. and other countries are moving staff out of the embassy in Kyiv.

No one knows who is making the bigger miscalculation here. Will Putin succeed in destabilizing Ukraine without serious consequences? After all, he didn't have any when he invaded Georgia, Crimea, assassinated Russians on European soil or interfered in U.S. elections. So will he succeed in undermining the Western alliance, or will the Western sanctions and Ukrainian resistance make a Russian invasion of Ukraine just too costly for him? We don't know.

SNELL: Well, this is all happening as President Biden's approval ratings here in the U.S. are bumping around, like, 40%. He is not operating in a scenario with a lot of room for mistakes. So is there a political will for a major confrontation with Russia over Ukraine?

LIASSON: There's no political will in the U.S. for a major military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, two nuclear powers. That's the scenario Biden has ruled out. U.S. troops are not going to Ukraine. But there is relative bipartisan unity on sanctions, on arming the Ukrainians. There are some dissenting voices on the right and left. Bernie Sanders, not surprisingly, has said that U.S. involvement in Eastern Europe could end up like Iraq and Vietnam, and that we should consider the, quote, "Russian perspective." A similar argument coming from Josh Hawley, who is a Trump-aligned conservative Republican senator - he has said that the U.S. should rule out the possibility that Ukraine could ever join NATO in the future, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin has been demanding.

SNELL: So on the pandemic, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain points out this weekend that cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all headed down, which is good news. But at the same time, when we ask if the administration is going to ease up on mitigation recommendations, the answer is no.

LIASSON: Well, no, not yet. The White House is really struggling to make the transition to a new normal in the pandemic, and that would mean not zero-COVID, a ratification of all cases. It would mean that hospitalizations and deaths are coming down. And a big bunch of blue-state governors have looked at the data and have said it's time to lift restrictions, move back to normal. Their voters, who are mostly vaccinated, are saying they don't think COVID, at least in its current variant, is much of a threat.

Biden, meanwhile, is waiting on the CDC. He promised to listen to scientists. But he's an elected leader, not a scientist, and he has to take into account a whole lot of other factors, like human behavior and the economy and the mental health of kids who have to wear masks all day. So I would say that his next move on COVID is TBD, and he's waiting on the CDC.

SNELL: All right, with the little bit of time we have left, let's end on inflation.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Prices up 7 1/2% compared to one year ago, rising at the fastest rate in four decades.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: That is a fresh 40-year high.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Fastest rate of price increases since February 1982.

SNELL: So the administration keeps saying that this is temporary, but where should inflation rank on Biden's list of concerns right now?

LIASSON: At the top (laughter). Inflation defeats presidents. They are actually no longer saying it's transitory. They're trying to say that they get it, and they're doing what they can. The problem is, there's not much they can do. The president can lift the gas tax. He can try to get rid of some supply chain bottlenecks, hope that the Fed gets it right by raising interest rates but not enough just to cause a recession. So this is a real problem for the president, and I think the bottom line is he's just going to keep on telling people that he understands and that he cares and hopes that it mitigates.

SNELL: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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