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June 15, 2021
What A Day
Vlad To Meet You, Mr. Biden

In This Episode

  • President Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow in Geneva for the final stop as part of his overseas trip as President. We spoke with Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Advisor in the Obama administration and a host of “Pod Save the World,” to talk about the takeaways from Biden’s trip and what to expect for Biden and Putin’s meeting.
  • And in headlines: a driver kills a protestor in Minneapolis and injures three others, the Novavax vaccine is over 90 percent effective, and Marjorie Taylor Greene apologizes for Holocaust comparisons.




Akilah Hughes: It’s Tuesday, June 15th, I’m Akilah Hughes


Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, where we give you the news in less time than it takes to read an apology by Chrissy Teigen.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and in way less time than it takes to read all of the responses to the apology from Chrissy Teigen.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, exactly. We are cutting out all of the noise for you, you know.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. It’s just us doing this. On today’s show, Ben Rhodes tells us what to watch for in President Biden’s meeting tomorrow with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.


Gideon Resnick: That’s right. That’s Biden’s final stop as part of his first overseas trip as president. Before this, he attended a G7 summit. Then he had a meeting with NATO allies. And it was after that NATO conference in Brussels yesterday, where he laid out how he is going to walk into tomorrow’s meeting with Putin.


[clip of President Biden] I shared with our allies that I’ll convey to, what I’ll convey to President Putin. But I’m not looking for conflict with Russia, but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and Russia is one of the top priorities for much of the world. Earlier on, NATO leaders had reportedly condemned the country for various human rights abuses, election interference, and more.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and the other priority is obviously China. At both the G7 and NATO meetings, world leaders expressed their concerns about China’s growing influence, as well as its history on human rights, transparency, and more, although they also called for a, quote “constructive dialog” with China whenever possible, including on climate change.


Gideon Resnick: So given all this, we wanted to check in with Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama administration and a host of “Pod Save the World’ to talk about the takeaways from Biden’s trip and what to expect in Biden’s meeting with Putin tomorrow. Ben, welcome to WAD.


Ben Rhodes: I’m so glad to be with you guys.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, thank you so much. So we’re going to get to Putin in a moment—there’s a lot to talk about there, of course—but first, the world leaders came together to talk pretty tough on China. What did you take away from that, and what could that actually mean for relations down the road?


Ben Rhodes: Well, I think what Biden is trying to do is he’s trying to get the world’s democracies to come together to focus on China as the, the threat, the challenge, the competitor, in kind of every way, shape and form, from our security to our economic difficulties to human rights practices. And it’s a tougher sell than it sounds like, because number one, you know, those European countries, for instance, they have deep economic relationships with China that they don’t want to put at risk. And number two, they’re not sure that the United States is the safest bet in the world, you know?


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah.


Ben Rhodes: They’re looking over Joe Biden’s shoulder and they see a bunch of lunatics in the Republican Party, including Donald Trump, ready to run again. And, you know, one trip isn’t going to put those doubts to rest. But I mean, I think what they’re doing is they’re changing the agenda. We want to talk about climate change, COVID, China—these are different issues than the Trump era G7, shall we say. And it’s a step in the right direction.


Gideon Resnick: Right. Right. Right.


Akilah Hughes: I mean, let’s talk about Russia for a second. So the relationship between Biden and Putin is frosty, I think at best. And both leaders agree that the U.S.=Russia relations are pretty much at a low point. But here’s Biden yesterday framing his side of tomorrow’s meeting.


[clip of President Biden] I’m going to make clear to President Putin. That there are areas where we can cooperate if he chooses. And if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind.


Akilah Hughes: It sounds like when my mom would yell at me for using the computer too long [laughs]. We’ll see what’s going to happen, you know, but [laughs] what do you think Putin thinks is going to come out of this first face-to-face meeting?


Ben Rhodes: Putin’s been to this rodeo with several American presidents, and nothing about Putin ever changes. In fact, the only thing that changes is he seems to get worse in terms of his efforts to kind of interfere in our democracy, to divide us against each other, divide us versus our allies, to—and the problem here, I mean, to step back, having been in these summits with Putin, he comes in, he just kind of debates you. He says actually all these things are your fault. You’re worse. You know, you’re doing cyber attacks. You know, you’re responsible for the instability everywhere. And there’s this kind of what-about-ism? And the basic challenge is it’s like, you know, you have a bully, and if you don’t stand up to the bully, then he keeps bullying you. But if you go and you punch the bully, then sometimes he punches you back and does something worse. And I think that’s the, what’s so interesting about watching this is that like Biden is wrestling with, he probably wants to stop this sense that we’re in this kind of escalation with Russia, cyber wars and all the rest of it. But he also needs to stand up to him and that can provoke a response. And so he’s trying to thread this needle and there’s no perfect answer. But at least, you know, he’s going into the meeting, standing up for the right things, unlike the last president.


Gideon Resnick: Right. And to that end, obviously, that relationship was, shall we say, more friendly for a lot of dicey reasons, we all know. But going back to Biden for a second, how is he sort of prepping for this meeting? Talking with Putin like we’re seeing here is kind of on a different level from the talks that he’s had with other world leaders over the past week or so. How does it change at all, also, given what’s been going on at NATO and what Biden actually said yesterday, part of what you just played in that clip?


Ben Rhodes: I think the first thing is that, you know, Joe Biden’s instincts, everything we know about him as a politician, and certainly my experience with him is, you know, he tries to get in the room and build a relationship and figure out where can we find common ground. And that’s normal and usually a very good impulse. It can be something of a trap with a Putin. It’s like negotiating with the Republicans taken to the extreme level here, you know? So that’s one thing has to be careful of. I think the other thing that’s, in terms of how he’s preparing for this, interesting, is that over the course of the last couple of days, he’s been in the room with a lot of people who have a lot of interest with Russia. So the NATO countries, the Eastern European countries, they want more NATO support so that Russia can’t mess with them too much. And, and they’re in his ear, too. And so every foreign leader that he’s been meeting with the last couple of days—I can tell you, having been in those rooms before, like say, Obama met with Putin. They all have advice, you know, and the advice is probably contradictory. He’s probably got some people telling them, hey, you need to cool things off. You need to figure out ways to work with the Russians. And he’s got another people telling him, hey, you got to go in there, really stand up to the guy. At the end of the day, I think you go in there with a bunch of positions on a bunch of different issues. You lay all that out for Putin. You say, I want to keep an open line with you guys and maybe we can work together on things like, I don’t know, limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Right? But on these other things, we’re just going to have differences with you and here’s where they are and here’s where we stand. I think it’s when you try to overshoot the runway and you try to make some big announcement that that ends up not being cooked, or it ends up being something that Putin is not going to follow through on, that’s when you get into more trouble. So I think better to be realistic here about what you can walk out with.


Akilah Hughes: Realistic being the key word there. And there’s a lot on the agenda. And obviously we’ve been talking about it a little bit, but one of the biggest concerns is hacking by groups that are based in Russia. And, you know, in the past few weeks alone, we’re all aware of the fact that these hackers were able to shut down a crucial oil pipeline, you know, linking America South and East, and also the operations of a worldwide meat supplier. So what kind of movement can we expect on this issue since all indications sort of point to Putin realistically not being bothered by how these hacking groups act?


Ben Rhodes: I mean, like so I think here’s Joe Biden wants going into this: a lot of this hacking activity traces back to Russia. There’s a question of how much of it might be the Russian government, which clearly was, in the case of our election, and disinformation campaigns. But some of these ransomware attacks could be these kind of criminal networks that operate in Russia. Skeptics like me kind of assume that it’s hard for hackers to operate in a place like Russia that is pretty totalitarian place without the Russian government at least kind of looking the other way. So I think what Biden wants to come out of there saying is that, like: you have a responsibility to work with us to put a stop to these ransomware attacks, these cyber attacks on our infrastructure and in a normal world where nations work together, what we would be doing is sharing information with you, like, hey, we see these cyber attacks coming from there. You guys have to go arrest those guys, maybe turn them over to us if we don’t have confidence in your justice system. And, you know, if you got even a little bit of Russian cooperation out of that, that’s better than where we went in. So, again, even if you’re not, like, totally solving the problem for making it a little bit better in preventing this kind of escalation and like a cyber war between the US and Russia, I think that’s a big reason why they had this summit. They didn’t like where this felt like it was going, which was kind of like, you know, a low-grade war in cyberspace.


Gideon Resnick: And the other kind of larger agenda item that we’ve been circling is the White House planning to bring up the issue of democracies, free press. Just last week, you know, a Russian court declared the political party of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, an extremist group, and Russia has sided with Belarus in that country’s hijacking of a commercial jet in order to apprehend a journalist—a story that I still am wrapping my own head around—so what should we be watching for in those specific conversations?


Ben Rhodes: I think on those, you know, Putin is going to reject whatever Biden says. So don’t expect any concessions from Vladimir Putin. What I’d be watching for is how much emphasis Biden puts on that set of issues. And look, because I think there’s more that can be done. So if you just look at Alexei Navalny, right, who’s in prison and whose network has been kind of smashed by Putin—you know I spent a bunch of time talking to Alexei Navalny last summer for this book and you know what he was doing so effectively as he was revealing Vladimir Putin’s corruption, and corruption is kind of the vulnerability, the Achilles heel of Putin and a lot of these autocrat. He’s stealing from his own people. He’s ostentatiously fabulously wealthy, along with his circle of cronies. And Navalny was exposing that in really kind of investigative journalism and online videos and movies and things. And you know what? America could do that. I mean, I’m sure we know a bit about where Putin’s money is and how corrupt he is and how lavish lifestyle is. And if we really wanted to go on offensive, we could basically say, if you’re going to silence these voices, we’re just going to do what they were doing and publicize this to the world. So how much Biden leans into this stuff is kind of part of what I would look at, because it’s hard to do but Putin has gone to such extremities, if you said like, look, when you are hijacking a commercial airliner flying from Greece to Lithuania so you can land it and detain and torture some guy who’s just a journalist, that kind of implicates all of us. Because, like, anybody could get on a plane anywhere and could land in the wrong place, you know?


Akilah Hughes: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: So I think I think he should hopefully lean into this stuff.


Akilah Hughes: And, you know, just following with that, you know, are there any other sort of smaller scale issues that we could see these two leaders coming together o?


Ben Rhodes: Right now, there’s this kind of effort to get back into the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, where Russia is a party to those negotiations and has influence on Iran. That may be on the table. But like, you know, I think the bigger question that I would introduce here that is like obviously front and center for you guys every day, is it often these things are framed as like, oh what does Putin want, does he want sanctions relief? Does he want, you know, the United States to give this thing and Ukraine in exchange for that thing? I think what Putin has wanted for a long time is basically for American democracy to unravel. He wants democracy to fail everywhere because he’s an autocrat and the failure of democracy is good for him. And it kind of turns America into its worst version of itself. And so, honestly, the work that Joe Biden has to do when he comes home to try to deal with issues related to voting rights, to try to deal with issues like election integrity, to just make our multiracial, multiethnic democracy work, is actually the most important thing he has to do to stand up to Vladimir Putin. And so I think that, you know, the blending of foreign and domestic issues is such that we have to realize Putin gets that. That’s why Putin is trying to create divisions in the Black Lives Matter movement.


Akilah Hughes: Right. Exactly.


Ben Rhodes: ‘And Putin’s probably the pouring gasoline on the QAnon fire, right? Because he gets at the real ball game is like whether American society holds together or not, you know? So that’s like to me, that’s the kind of subtext of this whole summit.


Akilah Hughes: Well, this was excellent. Thank you so much, Ben. Ben Rhodes, co-host of Pod Save The World, former Deputy National Security Adviser for President Obama and author of the new book, the new best-selling, New York Times best-selling book “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made.” Thanks for being here.


Ben Rhodes: Thanks so much, guys.


Akilah Hughes: And that’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Akilah Hughes: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: One person was killed after someone drove their car through a crowd of demonstrators in Minneapolis over the weekend. People gathered at an intersection on Sunday night to protest against the US Marshals killing of Winston Smith earlier this month. The protesters had blockaded an area of the road with their cars, but it did not stop the driver from ramming through at a high speed. Three other protesters were injured in the incident. Not much is known about the driver, but they have been arrested and taken into police custody. The victim is 31-year old Dionna M. Knejdec. A protester told The New York Times she was a kind, up-lifting spirit who had just recently joined the BLM movement in Minneapolis.


Akilah Hughes: American biotech company Novavax announced that their COVID-19 vaccine passed the Phase 3 clinical trial with flying colors. The fashionably late vaccine demonstrated an overall efficacy rate of over ninety point four percent, which is on par with Pfizer and Moderna’s rates. At this point, the US has more than enough vaccine supply available in the country, so it’s still uncertain where exactly these new shots would go. The company says it might not seek emergency use authorization from the FDA until later this year. It might be a while before the shots will be OK’d for the public. So some experts are saying it could potentially be the booster shot we might need later on. In other COVID-related news, the UK announced that it will be delaying its official reopening by four weeks following an upswing in cases of the Delta variant.


Gideon Resnick: A House lawmaker was able to turn her own mistake into a teaching moment yesterday, reminding the country that describing personal pet peeves as “like the Holocaust” is actually kind of problematic. That person was, of course, human road rage incident, Marjorie Taylor Green. She formally apologized for repeatedly equating genocide against Jewish people with a mask requirement in the House, after visiting the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. and noticing a few key differences. Greene did not retract her comments about today’s Democratic Party being like the Nazi Party. So she might want to do one more museum visit and maybe purchase an annual pass while she’s at it. There still could be a resolution to censure Greene coming later in the week from Democratic Representative Brad Schneider. From House Republicans, whose anti-Semitism detector is not known to be reliable, a motion was introduced yesterday to censure representatives Ilhan Omar, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley for their recent criticism of Israel. The resolution’s authors say that by calling out Israel’s human rights violations, the four Squad members were inciting violence against Jews. This is yet another installment of the detestable series Gentiles Doing Bad Faith Caring. Personally, I’m moved, but I am begging for it to stop.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, uh cosign. Well, sad news about the world’s most petable viral vector: dogs from over 100 countries were barred from import into the U.S. by the CDC yesterday following an uptick in falsified rabies records. During the all-out pop rush that took over in 2020, many Americans look for dogs abroad, incentivizing some vendors to get proof of vaccination from famous veterinarian, Dr. Adobe Photoshop. The countries that got dog blocked are the ones the CDC considers to be high risk for rabies. And they account for just 6% of dogs brought into the U.S. each year. And since we were discussing pets, I’m required to mention the large scrub brush with eyes that won the Westminster Dog Show this weekend: Wasabi, the Pekinese took home best in show, reminding anyone whose body wants to kill them because of genetic engineering, they are capable of greatness. The runner up was a dog named after two ingredients for the perfect party: Bourbon the Whippet.


Gideon Resnick: Wasabi looks a lot like Danny DeVito in [unclear]. I’m just saying


Akilah Hughes: I feel like he should have won. [laughs] And hose are the headlines.


Gideon Resnick: That is all for today, if you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, party with Bourbon the Whippet, and tell your friends to listen.


Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just the most elementary school-level summary of World War II like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Akilah Hughes.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And congrats to the scrub brush!


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. You know, representation matters, so I guess weird little dog’s got to win stuff.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it’s time. Gremlin little dogs need a prize.


Akilah Hughes: What a day is a production of Crooked Media.


Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.


Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.


Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.


Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.