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News brief: Ukraine war talks, Biden defends Putin comment, Jan.6 panel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Negotiators from Ukraine and Russia have a lot to talk about, but what can they resolve?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

They're meeting for the first time in weeks, and the war's changed since they last sat across a table. Russia failed to take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and in recent days, Ukrainian troops have claimed to recapture some Kyiv suburbs. Russian officials, though, are acting like they never planned to take it and are shifting their focus to the east of the country.

INSKEEP: Amid all that, negotiators meet in Istanbul, which is where we find NPR's Peter Kenyon. Hey there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the setting for these talks?

KENYON: Well, this latest round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations is taking place at Istanbul's Dolmabahce Palace, a rather lavish structure on the banks of the Bosporus strait. That's where Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has an office. Erdogan addressed both delegations before the talks started, wishing them success in ending what he called this tragedy. Turkey has offered for some time to host talks and would actually prefer to be a mediator. But for now, it's just the host.

INSKEEP: So the Ukrainians talked directly with the Russians. And what do the Ukrainians want?

KENYON: Well, some of the comments we've heard before these talks started point to potential areas of progress. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Russian journalists Ukraine could be willing to agree to some security guarantees Russia has demanded. It could declare neutrality. It could end its push to join NATO, perhaps pledge not to seek nuclear weapons. Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, meanwhile, listed what Ukraine won't discuss. He's - quote, "people, land and sovereignty." He says at a minimum, Ukraine wants things like humanitarian corridors for families trying to escape the violence. And he says the maximum demand is a full cease-fire and, of course, the complete withdrawal of Russian troops.

INSKEEP: That phrase, land and sovereignty - isn't that going to be problematic here given that there are parts of Ukraine that Russia seized and controlled even before the war?

KENYON: Well, certainly. What is Ukrainian territory and what Russia has its eyes on is potentially an important thing to watch out for. Since 2014, Russia's controlled and then annexed Crimea. There's long been strong pro-Russian sentiment in parts of eastern Ukraine. Kyiv, not surprisingly, has shown no willingness to reward the Russian invasion with territorial concessions. But it would be interesting to know if Moscow is putting any specific territorial demands on the table.

INSKEEP: Does Russia seem receptive to anything the Ukrainians have been saying?

KENYON: Well, some of those items I mentioned are things Moscow has been seeking. Russia did have other demands, of course, some of which were seen as nonstarters and which, reportedly, Moscow may now be prepared to drop. That includes its claim that Ukraine, a country with a Jewish president, somehow needs to be de-Nazified.

INSKEEP: Let me just ask about the host here. You mentioned the Turks would like to be mediators; instead, they're just hosts. It's a - certainly an interesting venue. It's a NATO nation. It's a near neighbor of Russia. It's a historic enemy of Russia from time to time. What is their role?

KENYON: Well, Turkey is essentially one of those countries that would love to keep good relations with both Ukraine and Russia. President Erdogan has spoken against the invasion. He's called for a cease-fire. He's kept in contact with both leaders, though. Ukraine seems happy with Turkey as a mediator, not just a host. Ankara's been a military supporter of Ukraine, supplying armed drones. But Erdogan has also been close to Vladimir Putin, spoken of cordial ties. And economics plays a role here because large numbers of Russian visitors visit Turkey's resort cities each year, and people here don't want that to stop happening.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much for the insights.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: President Biden says he meant what he said or, rather, that he merely said what he felt.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Last weekend, the president ended a speech with an improvised line. Speaking of Russia's Vladimir Putin, he said, my God, this man cannot remain in power. His staff immediately clarified the U.S. is not seeking regime change. But yesterday the president said he also isn't taking back his exclamation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It was expressing my outrage. He shouldn't remain in power, just like, you know, bad people shouldn't continue to do bad things. But it doesn't mean we have a fundamental policy to do anything to take Putin down in any way.

INSKEEP: NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is with us. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I got to tell you, when I saw this headline over the weekend, I went and looked at the video, and from that context, I understood right away Biden had improvised. I kind of understood what he meant, even though it wasn't what he said. I knew they'd be clarifying. In fact, they did clarify. So what made this a big deal?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, it was an off-script moment for Biden, and diplomatically, the line threatened to complicate things with allies. I mean, until that line in the speech, NATO had been speaking from the very same script pretty much. And it wasn't only - the only statement that Biden had to clarify from the trip. He also had to clarify about some inartful language while talking to and about U.S. troops, about whether they'd be going into Ukraine or not. And the other was when he said if Russia used chemical weapons, the U.S. would respond, quote, "in kind." Biden told reporters instead he meant it would, quote, "trigger a significant response."

INSKEEP: I'm not terribly surprised that Biden would feel this way, though. I'm remembering a statement by Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, some days ago, saying that Ukraine was going to last a lot longer than Vladimir Putin. It's certainly not surprising that U.S. officials wouldn't mind Putin's departure.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and you don't have to just look at Blinken; you can look right at Biden. I mean, he said - he had called Putin a war criminal, and on the same trip, he called him a butcher. A lot of Democratic strategists I've been talking to actually said that Biden, they think, should just lean into it and should have done so from the beginning. Paul Begala, who was a senior adviser in the Clinton White House, was emphatic that when the dust settles on this, what Biden did is going to sound pretty popular, like some tough talk from some Cold War-era American presidents.

PAUL BEGALA: As for so-called gaffes, I think this will go down in history like when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire. And the legend is his staff didn't want him to do it, and he fought and fought, and he just said it 'cause he thought it, and I think that's what Biden did.

MONTANARO: Look; Biden's been struggling in the polls on his handling of the crisis, and many have said that they think that he needs to be stronger.

INSKEEP: So does he gain from this, then?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, these strategists also said that not necessarily because they point out that the real danger here for Biden is on the narrative of competence, which they say was badly damaged after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Joel Payne is a veteran of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, and he said Biden's competence is a critical pillar to his political success.

JOEL PAYNE: That's what he's fighting against - right? - is, like, people not believing in this core tenet of Joe Biden, which is part of the reason why Joe Biden as a political phenomena exists - because he is this island of kind of decency, competence and plain-spokenness in this sea of kind of complicated political waters. And that competence is a really important part of who he is. So if you take that away, that is a major piece of Biden's superpower that you're taking away.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and that's what makes some Democrats really nervous about some of these off-script moments from President Biden, which he obviously has been prone to do throughout his long career. And Payne said part of building back that competence argument is going to be at least partially determined by his handling of Ukraine. And he can't afford, Biden, for this to go poorly, considering the domestic obstacles that he's facing, particularly - think about rising gas prices and inflation.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Hey, what's it mean when a judge says you likely committed a crime?

MARTINEZ: That is what a judge wrote about former President Trump in his bid to stay in power after the 2020 election.

INSKEEP: NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach has been looking into this ruling. Tom, good morning.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what does this mean?

DREISBACH: So the significance of this ruling - first of all, it's important to note the context of the case it came in 'cause this finding does not have direct legal consequences for Trump himself. The case is actually a dispute over records between the pro-Trump lawyer John Eastman and congressional investigators. Now, Eastman, after the 2020 election, advised the Trump team, even met in the Oval Office with Trump and others, where he presented some far-fetched legal theories on how to overturn the election on January 6 and to keep Trump in power. Investigators on the congressional committee looking into January 6, they wanted to see Eastman's emails and communications. Eastman refused to hand them over, said they were protected by, essentially, attorney-client privilege - Trump being his client. So now a federal judge has ruled and mostly rejected Eastman's arguments, and one reason why, the judge said, was because it was more likely than not that Trump broke the law by trying to obstruct Congress, and if these communications were made as part of a crime or fraud, they have to be disclosed.

INSKEEP: I don't want to say it's just a judge's opinion because I guess it's really a judge's analysis, but in any case, more likely than not is not beyond a reasonable doubt.

DREISBACH: That's right. This is a civil case. So the judge's ruling was really narrowly about these records and whether Congress can get them. But I talked to Jonathan Shaub. He's a law professor at the University of Kentucky, a former Justice Department official. He said this is still an important new finding from a federal court.

JONATHAN SHAUB: Well, I mean, it's enormously significant. This is a - you know, a statutory analysis with the facts that says President Trump and Eastman engaged in a crime.

DREISBACH: He said this ruling really gives support to this legal theory congressional investigators have been putting forward that Trump may have engaged in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct Congress.

INSKEEP: Interesting that you mention congressional investigators. They've made criminal referrals from time to time. There are, of course, Department of Justice criminal investigations into January 6. Does the judge's finding have any effect on any of that?

DREISBACH: Not in a concrete way. Still, it could lead to more pressure on the department to bring criminal charges against higher-level officials. The judge in this case, I should say, you know, he did not mince words. He said Trump and Eastman's actions amounted to a, quote, "coup in search of a legal theory." He went on - if Eastman and President Trump's plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transfer of power, undermined American democracy and the Constitution. Now, this judge was nominated to the bench by Bill Clinton, so he's been a judge for more than two decades in the federal courts. And he warned that without accountability, he said there could be another January 6.

INSKEEP: Do Trump or Eastman have anything to say about this?

DREISBACH: Well, in general, Trump has denied all wrongdoing stemming from January 6. I reached out to the Trump team to ask about this specific ruling. They didn't respond. Eastman's attorney said, for his part, he respectfully disagreed with the judge in this case but that he would comply with the ruling.

INSKEEP: Turning over the documents, then.

DREISBACH: That's right.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks so much.

DREISBACH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Dreisbach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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