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Federal agencies scramble to finish Biden’s rules — and protect his legacy from Trump

Politico -

President Joe Biden’s allies are getting antsy about his administration’s pileup of unfinished environmental rules — especially with the threat that a second Trump presidency could undo them all.

Biden’s agencies are facing a deadline this spring to finish some of their most important regulations to ensure that a Republican Congress and White House can’t erase them next year, including a crackdown on power plants’ climate pollution, protections for endangered species and a bid to protect federal employees from politically motivated firings.

Complicating matters is the fact that the deadline won’t be known until months after rules are completed.

Advocates of tougher environmental regulations watched as then-President Donald Trump used a previously seldom-invoked statute to unwind more than a dozen of the Obama administration’s rules in the opening months of 2017. They don’t want that to happen again.

The scramble to finish the regulations is crucial to determining how much of Biden’s ambitious legacy may survive past the November election, as the two likely nominees promote sharply contrasting views on climate change, green energy and the power of federal agencies.

The Biden administration has promised action on a lot of fronts, and how soon it rolls those rules out could determine how easy they are for a future administration to unravel. Policy insiders and Biden administration allies are urging agencies’ rule writers to keep their eye on the clock.

“I am acutely aware of the calendar, and I'm checking on status regularly,” said Paul Billings, the national senior vice president for public policy at the American Lung Association. “In a month, my hair may be on fire.”

Lisa Frank, who leads the Washington legislative office at the advocacy group Environment America, said she’s feeling “anxious excitement” over the raft of expected rules.

“The Biden administration is poised to deliver some of the biggest gains on clean air, clean water and safeguarding nature that we've seen in years,” Frank said. That’s on top of “the most significant progress by a very long shot” in addressing climate change.

“Obviously, there's still a lot of work to do to make all that progress,” she said.

James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for Progressive Reform, said there is no reason agencies cannot get their rules done at this point in Biden’s term.

“They know this stuff cold,” Goodwin said. “There are no impediments. It's pedal to the metal time.”

‘The sooner the better’

Looming large over the administration’s rule-writing this year: the prospect of a second Trump administration.

During his first term, Trump shocked environmental advocates and former Obama administration officials — many of whom had been banking on a Hillary Clinton presidency — when he and the GOP-controlled Congress used the 1996 Congressional Review Act to trash more than a dozen Obama-era rules. Before Trump’s presidency, lawmakers had used the once-obscure law only once, to roll back a single rule from the Clinton administration.

The law allows Congress to overturn agency rules within 60 congressional session days of when a regulation is finalized and sent to the Capitol. But Congress’ schedule can be hard to predict, and it’s not yet clear when the deadline for shielding rules will be.

The lesson from Trump’s use of the CRA “certainly has sharpened the focus to be as conservative as possible in terms of estimating when it could possibly be,” said Matthew Davis, legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters.

Experts think the deadline could be this spring — possibly in May or June — but the regulatory process is complex, involving steps like White House review and getting rules printed in the Federal Register. There’s also a threat of another government shutdown that would force the agencies to stop working. So advocates don’t want to take any chances.

“The sooner the better,” Frank said. “We’ve been encouraging the Biden administration to get many of these done by Earth Day” on April 22, she added, both for the symbolism and to ensure that they aren’t susceptible to congressional repeal.

The administration is cognizant of the deadlines, according to its environmental allies.

“It’s clear that senior career and political leadership are also aware of the calendar,” Billings said.

The administration is “very focused” on getting the rules out in a way that would “insulate them from a reach-back,” Davis said.

At risk of rules ‘bottleneck’

Leaving it late can be dangerous. Rules are already sitting at the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Others could wait to be printed in the Federal Register.

“There certainly could be a bottleneck at OIRA as more actions get sent for review,” said Brittany Bolen, counsel at the law firm Sidley Austin, who has been tracking regulations.

But life happens. Bolen, then head of the Trump EPA’s policy shop, remembers 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic landed in the United States. Federal offices closed and Congress took more legislative days to pass relief legislation for the virus outbreak. In turn, the regulatory runway got stretched.

“We were operating on a May timeline, and that got pushed out to August,” Bolen said.

Nevertheless, opposition to several of Biden’s rules runs strong among GOP lawmakers. That could spell trouble for them in 2025.

“I would point to a substantial body of pushback to the promulgation of these rules by Republicans on Capitol Hill,” said Joseph Brazauskas, who led EPA’s congressional and intergovernmental relations office during the Trump administration.

Those include EPA’s forthcoming rules on power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions and vehicles’ tailpipe pollution, said Brazauskas, now senior counsel for the Policy Resolution Group at the law firm Bracewell.

The administration’s latest regulatory agenda, issued in December, provides agencies’ best estimates of when they expect to move next on their rules, including when they will issue final versions.

An Office of Management and Budget spokesperson said the office does not comment on rules under review.

Here are some of the big-ticket regulations environmental advocates are watching for:


EPA rule writers are hustling behind the scenes to wrap up work on a suite of big Biden regulations on climate, water and chemicals this year.

Next month, EPA is looking to finish a regulation designating the so-called “forever chemicals” PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law.

Closely watched climate rules, such as revamped tailpipe pollution limits for cars and trucks, are expected in March as well. Those rules, under review at the White House, could lead to electric vehicles making up two-thirds of car and light truck sales as soon as 2032, the EPA has estimated.

In addition, the agency is aiming to finish its long-anticipated standards for power plants' greenhouse gas emissions in April. That rule would require fossil fuel plants to rely on relatively new technologies to bring down their climate pollution — or force many of them to shut down.

In an interview with POLITICO’s E&E News last year, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency was “on track” to finish its climate rules.

Also on the agenda to be finished in April: EPA’s push to have polluters clean up coal ash at inactive power plants and disposal sites, which could prove costly for energy companies. The toxic waste product, produced by coal-fired power plants, can leak from ponds and landfills, potentially contaminating nearby groundwater.

EPA is expected to roll out a revised lead and copper rule for drinking water systems, which would trigger action sooner to reduce lead exposure and require lead pipes to be replaced within 10 years.

That rule isn’t expected to be completed until October, according to the administration’s regulatory plans.

"EPA is working hard to finalize several important rules this spring to ensure public health and environmental protection for all Americans," EPA spokesperson Remmington Belford said.

Federal workforce

Biden’s team is writing a rule that could have major implications for employees at environmental agencies.

Last year, the Office of Personnel Management proposed stronger guardrails for the civil service. The regulation says career employees keep their civil service protections unless they voluntarily accept a political appointee job and adds requirements when reclassifying career positions as political appointments.

The rule could serve as a vital defense for federal employees if Trump wins in November.

Before he left the White House, Trump signed an executive order proposing to create a new class of government workers, Schedule F, which was designed to turn many career employees into at-will appointees and thus easier to be fired. Biden revoked that order soon after taking office.

The regulation, with its comment period closed last November, is slated to be completed in April.

“OPM is committed to protecting the rights of federal workers who deliver critical services for Americans in every community,” said office spokesperson Viet Tran.

White House

A much-anticipated rule to rework environmental permitting is in its final stages after the Council on Environmental Quality submitted the regulation for White House review in January.

The "Phase 2" revisions for the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law dating from the 1960s, are aimed at speeding up the development of clean energy and power transmission projects. (A legislative attempt to accomplish the same goals has been mired for years in Congress.) It would hasten the permitting process for projects such as wildfire management, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and offshore wind. It would also reverse parts of a Trump administration rule aimed at altering how the government enforces the statute.

The Biden rule is expected to be completed in April, the administration estimated in its latest regulatory agenda.

Interior Department

Major proposals about the use of public lands are still in the works, from new requirements on oil and gas drilling to enshrining conservation as a priority on the 245 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Bureau officials have said the conservation changes — which would make conservation equal to energy development, livestock grazing and recreation on public lands — are necessary to protect Western rangelands increasingly vulnerable to drought in a warming world.

But Republicans in Congress and in Western states have railed against the proposal, with Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) last year calling it "illegal," making it a likely target for reversal. BLM has signaled it plans to finalize the rule in April.

Key oil and gas proposals by BLM are also still pending, including one released last year that would increase royalties to new minimums set by the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as prioritize new oil leasing where oil potential is high. A second proposed rule from 2022 would limit the venting and flaring of natural gas — practices that release planet-warming methane into the atmosphere — on public lands. Both were scheduled to be finished by this spring, according to the administration's regulations plan.

Meanwhile, the timing of another contentious Interior rule to protect migratory birds remains uncertain. The Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal to implement a Migratory Bird Treaty Act permit system governing the unintentional killing of birds by industry was abruptly pulled back from an OIRA review last December.

Several Endangered Species Act decisions expected late in Biden’s term could raise hackles among the Trump team, such as a decision on listing the wide-ranging monarch butterfly as a threatened or endangered species. The decision about the monarch butterfly, along with the designation of its critical habitat, is on the books for Fish and Wildlife Service action in September.

Final Fish and Wildlife Service rule proposals for revising how the Endangered Species Act and associated critical habitat decisions are made are under White House review and are supposed to be wrapped by April, according to the regulatory plan.

Energy Department

Rule watchers are keeping tabs on several big efficiency standards expected soon from the Energy Department, on the heels of the DOE’s much-debated efficiency requirements for gas stoves.

New regulations for clothes washers and dryers are expected imminently. Other potential major regulations include residential water heaters and distribution transformers — both expected by April.

DOE is also expected to issue efficiency regulations this year for dishwashers, ceiling fans, consumer boilers, vending machines, electric motors, commercial ice makers and other appliances.

Brian Dabbs, Heather Richards and Laura Maggi contributed to this report.

‘No one’s coming to save us’: Abortion campaigns scramble for limited cash

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Abortion rights could be on the ballot in nearly a quarter of states this November, raising concerns among supporters about the ability to fund major campaign efforts in all of them.

From deep-red Arkansas and Missouri to purple Arizona and Nevada, activists are already competing with each other for a limited pool of cash and auditioning for the national progressive groups they need to fund their efforts to enshrine protections in state constitutions.

There isn’t enough for everyone, particularly as wealthy donors who have showered ballot campaigns with cash in the two years since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade now have their attention — and wallets — divided between those efforts and presidential and congressional races.

The scramble is pitting abortion-rights supporters in states with near-total bans against those in states where abortion is legal but under threat against those in battleground states where Democrats hope a strong abortion access campaign will juice turnout and propel President Joe Biden and congressional candidates to victory.

“If we had an unlimited budget, which we don’t, and unlimited staffing, resources and all of that, then there’d be an expanded map I would like to make a run at, because it is such a crisis,” said Deirdre Schifeling, the chief political and advocacy officer for the American Civil Liberties Union. “But these campaigns are incredibly expensive, so we need to see all the right pieces in place to know where we can be successful.”

The ACLU is one of a handful of organizations, along with Planned Parenthood, Reproductive Freedom for All, the Fairness Project, Think Big America, Open Society Foundations and the progressive nonprofit Tides Foundation that are expected to collectively spend tens of millions this year to help codify abortion rights in state constitutions. These groups are agonizing over where their dollars could have the most impact, telling POLITICO they are weighing the substance of the ballot measure proposals as well as the political and legal hurdles they have to clear, how well they’re polling and their effect on the 2024 election.

The campaigns on the short end of these decisions could find themselves starved of the cash needed to gather petition signatures, beat back attempts from GOP officials to block the measures and persuade voters to restore access to millions of people.

“No one’s coming to save us,” said Gennie Diaz, executive director of the group For AR People, which is leading Arkansas’ ballot measure campaign. “We don’t begrudge any group for having a nuanced strategic plan that we don’t necessarily fit into. … But if we do not receive the funding to run a robust statewide campaign, the consequence will be that women will die in this state. We need that funding so we can restore access and prevent that from happening.”

Diaz said that without seven-figure support — the kind of money that almost certainly needs to come from large organizations — they may be able to qualify the measure for the ballot but likely can’t win in November. They’ve received zero so far from national groups, and have cobbled together just $30,000 from small-dollar donors.

Progressive organizations are avoiding the state because they believe Arkansas’ ballot measure, which would override the state’s near-total ban and restore abortion protections through 20 weeks of pregnancy instead of Roe’s standard of around 24 weeks, is too restrictive and sets a bad precedent for future efforts.

“Our motto is, ‘No steps backwards,’” said Beth Huang, civic engagement and democracy program officer for the Tides Foundation. “Roe is the floor, and we are prioritizing measures that reestablish the floor. We don’t want to support policies that enable backsliding.”

Arizona, a presidential and Senate battleground state where courts could implement a near-total abortion ban at any time, has so far drawn support from the most national groups — raking in more than $5.8 million as of December, including large sums from national organizations like the Fairness Project, Illinois Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s nonprofit Think Big America and the Advocacy Action Fund, a nonprofit dark money group that does not have to disclose its donors.

Nevada, another presidential swing state with a crucial Senate race, has received $1.8 million, even though abortion is already legal there and the proposed amendment wouldn’t take effect until 2026.

Mike Ollen, a senior adviser for Think Big America, pitched a two-pronged approach — prioritizing direct investment in ballot measures while not being “naive to the threat of a national abortion ban.” That’s why his organization, he said, will also “work to ensure anti-choice politicians do not gain control of both chambers of Congress.”

Past abortion referendum fights, however, have not proven to be a reliable booster for Democrats running on the same ballot, and some activists are warning against making electoral politics too big a factor in funding decisions.

Colorado and Florida are not thought to be in play in the 2024 election but both serve as regional hubs for people traveling from nearby states with anti-abortion laws and campaigns there have raised more than $1.3 million and more than $17 million, respectively. Colorado’s measure would codify the right to abortion throughout pregnancy in the state constitution and allow state funding for the procedure. Florida’s would nullify both the state’s active 15-week ban and a pending 6-week ban.

It won’t be clear until this summer whether the majority of the pro-abortion-rights campaigns gather enough signatures and clear the legal or bureaucratic hurdles needed to make it to the ballot, and many deep-pocketed national organizations stressed that they will reevaluate their funding strategy as the year goes on.

In Florida, for instance, groups like the Fairness Project are waiting to see if the state Supreme Court allows the measure to go forward before investing millions. But other organizations, like the Tides Foundation, Open Society and Planned Parenthood, believe that the state is so crucial for abortion access that they’ve been willing to shell out hefty sums to give the proposal a fighting chance.

“Florida is the second-largest abortion-providing state in the country. The South is a real desert for reproductive health care. We think the six-week abortion ban would be devastating for abortion access in the South and then also the entire Caribbean,” Huang said. “It goes so far beyond the 20 million people who live in Florida.”

At the bottom of most of the organizations’ lists are Arkansas and South Dakota, two states where abortion is illegal in nearly all circumstances but where proposed ballot measures would only restore some access.

Major groups — including Planned Parenthood and the Fairness Project — told POLITICO those state proposals have “shortcomings” and don’t “align with our values.” Diaz and other red-state activists say they would have adopted more expansive measures if they believed they could pass in such deeply conservative states.

“Do we sit on our hands and have ideological purity with our views on this or do we pursue what we can get now and then really hope that this limited restoration of access is going to save people’s lives and get people the health care they need?” she asked.

Diaz and other ballot measure proponents in those states argue their proposals would make a big difference, saving patients from having to travel hundreds of miles for care. But neither state effort has received any national funding, leaving them to cobble together small-dollar donations to pay for things like polling, signature gathering, legal work and ads.

“The challenge when you’re in one of these more obscure rural states is getting people to actually care and realize that we have people out here that are suffering under one of the most extreme abortion bans in the whole country,” said Adam Weiland, co-founder of Dakotans for Health, which is backing the South Dakota measure. “There was some question on our measure not going far enough … but we’re kind of in the basement here in South Dakota.”

Along with unease that Arkansas and South Dakota’s proposals keep some abortion restrictions in place, groups gave POLITICO a litany of reasons they are hesitant to support various campaigns, pointing to Florida’s hostile political and legal climate, and the lack of a threat to abortion rights in New York, Maryland and Colorado. Several groups also stressed that polling has influenced their decisions. They want to spend resources where they’re confident an abortion-rights ballot measure can not only win but win decisively.

“You have to start from a very, very strong place in order to overcome the viciousness of the opposition,” said Schifeling of the ACLU’s criteria. “You have to start from a very lopsided place in terms of voter sentiment.”

Weak polling is what is, for now, keeping the ACLU and other organizations away from Nebraska, where a ballot measure could undo the state’s 12-week abortion ban, while recent strong polling helped persuade them and others to jump into the fight in Missouri, where a coalition is trying to knock down a near-total ban.

“You didn’t see me talking about Missouri six months ago,” said Kelly Hall, the executive director of the Fairness Project. “But you do now.”

The broader goal for activists pushing for constitutional amendments enshrining abortion rights and the donors behind them is to extend the unbroken winning streak since the Dobbs ruling in the summer of 2022. And since Kansas kicked off the post-Roe abortion ballot measure fight in August of that year, the pro-abortion-rights side has massively outraised and outspent their anti-abortion opponents in red and blue states alike. In Michigan, for example, progressives raked in more than double the funding of their anti-abortion rivals in the lead-up to their victory in the fall of 2022.

Anti-abortion groups are vowing to catch up and beat back these ballot measures. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the biggest national groups, plans to spend a record $92 million this year — some of which will go toward door-knocking in Arizona, Montana and other states where they hope to persuade voters to reject abortion-rights initiatives. The group spent $78 million in 2022, and after several ballot measures and congressional candidates they backed fell short that year and in 2023, they scolded conservative donors for not stepping up to the plate.

“We need as even a fight as we can when it comes to the money. We have to raise the money now and we have to raise awareness now,” SBA’s state affairs director Kelsey Pritchard told reporters in January. “We have to be aggressive even in states where we’re not sure if it’s going to be on the ballot.”

A guide to the 5 GOP factions roiling the House

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Speaker Mike Johnson hasn’t had much success taming the House GOP’s constantly warring factions. The situation has, if anything, gotten worse under his reign.

Just over three months into his speakership, Johnson’s already caught in the same swamp that eventually drowned Kevin McCarthy. A few firebrands are threatening to force a vote to boot him from the job, conservatives are publicly griping about his decisions and battleground district centrists have indicated they’re fed up with walking the plank on tough votes.

Add two more troublesome groups to that mix, thanks in part to the Louisiana Republican’s predecessor. McCarthy allies who are still smarting over their friend’s ejection have criticized Johnson’s leadership style. And the three conservatives McCarthy installed on the powerful Rules Committee — part of a bargain the Californian struck to win the gavel last year — have hobbled Johnson’s ability to get bills on the floor.

"It is a tough job. He's doing well," McCarthy told POLITICO as he visited his old stomping grounds for a recent event. "I think you get better every day at it."

The former speaker, however, declined to evaluate Johnson’s performance more specifically, saying: "I don't give grades. I wasn't a teacher."

Those parts of the House GOP will likely only split further as Johnson tries to navigate a litany of challenges this year while dealing with an even smaller majority than he inherited. Those obstacles include twin government funding deadlines, a twice-punted surveillance fight and growing concerns that Republicans are poised to lose House control in November.

Here’s a breakdown of who’s in those factions and what to watch.

There’s not a ton of appetite within the House GOP to oust another speaker, especially after the three weeks of pain Republicans endured last time. Still, a few are making threats — and the coming weeks will likely determine if any are serious.

Those members largely aren’t the same ones that delivered the final blow to McCarthy. Many are allies of the former speaker, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) who has stated that she will challenge Johnson if he moves forward with certain votes she opposes.

Greene has threatened to move against Johnson if he grants a floor vote on Ukraine aid, something that looks entirely possible in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) told CNN last week that Johnson would face an ouster vote if he put the Senate-passed national security supplemental — that includes aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan but no border provisions — on the floor for a vote.

And Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who was the first to raise the possibility of booting Johnson, has repeatedly criticized the Louisianan for striking deals with Democrats to avert government shutdowns.

Not all conservatives are looking to oust Johnson, but many of them have found other ways to make his life difficult. Namely, jamming up day-to-day governing.

That includes conservatives like Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who has warned that Johnson leapfrogging them on must-pass bills by leaning on Democratic support will have consequences. Good said leadership should no longer count on the right flank’s support for smaller pieces of party-line legislation that make up most of the House’s output.

Johnson also has to contend with Republicans like Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Dan Bishop (N.C.) and Tim Burchett (Tenn.), who have publicly urged him to get tougher on fighting for conservative priorities.

Plus, conservative Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) played a large role in temporarily snagging Johnson’s drive to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, leading to an embarrassing flop on the floor before a successful second attempt.

It’s not just the right flank causing Johnson some heartburn.

The most prominent rebels in the conference's ideological middle are a group of New York Republicans from districts won by President Joe Biden. They helped block a spending bill, led the effort to oust former Rep. George Santos, and threatened to take down a rule last month as they tried to force Johnson to cut a deal with them on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction.

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.) indicated on Thursday that Republicans will continue to threaten rules or use other tools to make sure their priorities are known and considered in the House, particularly after their SALT deal was blocked last week. The first-term Long Islander said in a brief interview that “every option is on the table.”

Johnson is also facing another contradictory push among his centrists — namely for more Ukraine aid — that will spark conservative ire. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Don Bacon (R-Neb.) are working with Democrats on a plan that is expected to link military funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan to border security.

But even as they and other House Republicans make the case both privately and publicly for more Ukraine funding, none of the so-called mod squad has said they will sign a discharge petition — a gambit that would require them to join with Democrats to force a floor vote.

Some of the ex-speaker’s closest allies have found themselves distanced from, or even outright criticizing, his successor.

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a onetime confidant of McCarthy's, got quietly removed by fellow Louisianan Johnson from a little-known but influential position in leadership soon after the gavel changed hands last fall.

Then there's Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the Financial Services chair who is retiring at the end of this term. He is perhaps the most blatant in his frequent criticisms of Johnson. He has argued the Louisianan is catering too much to his right flank’s demands — a criticism that was often lobbed at McCarthy.

McHenry argued last week that Republicans weakened their policy hand when they ejected the Californian.

“I think you see many House Republicans that took out McCarthy recognize that we're in a much worse public policy position now. … We've got less done in terms of oversight as a result of this. And our political position is weaker,” McHenry told a gaggle of reporters off the House floor.

But he is not the only one. Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), a close ally of McCarthy, has also been outspoken in his criticisms of Johnson. And Greene has said she is under a different mindset under Johnson, implying she has less respect for the newbie.

McCarthy gave seats on the influential Rules Committee to right-flank gadflies last January — giving some of his most rebellious members huge new sway over what bills can be brought to the floor.

Johnson inherited that headache and didn’t make changes to the panel when he took over in October. While McCarthy allies argue the new members helped them gauge whether a bill would succeed on the floor, Johnson allies say it has handcuffed their ability to govern effectively.

Roy and Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) together typically have the ability to block any bill they don’t like from getting on the floor. And the three Republicans have flexed their legislative powers already — forcing Johnson to scrap a plan to bring competing spy power bills to the floor late last year.

It’s a dynamic that has led Johnson to surpass the panel on critical legislation like funding the government and a tax deal, bringing bills straight to the floor under another process that requires a two-thirds threshold. That means he has to rely heavily on Democratic support, a tendency deeply disliked by conservatives.

Eleanor Mueller contributed to this report.

Jake Sullivan’s Revolution

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On April 27, 2023, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank that for years has served as a beacon of Democratic establishment thinking, was about to be the site of a major reshaping.

One of the party’s leaders, Jake Sullivan, was about to challenge long-held beliefs and lay out a road map for the nation’s ideological future. The times were changing, and America had to change with them.

Brookings is a legendary place, among the most famous think tanks in the world. It’s the kind of institution presidents visited to give great speeches and senior officials went to for outside policy counsel, and where the capital’s elite waited out an opposing party’s administration while itching to serve with a like-minded team. Now it would serve as the birthplace of a quiet revolution.

For weeks, Jake Sullivan and his team crafted an address that was nominally about the administration’s views on economics. But it would really serve as a critique of orthodoxy in America’s capital, a bludgeon to U.S. foreign policy thinking that was so prominent in the gilded halls of Brookings and among Washington’s well-heeled.

The speech reflected the journey Sullivan himself had been on for six years. Down and out after Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, he sought to understand why the modern-day traditions of U.S. foreign policy weren’t resonating with the kind of people he grew up with in Minnesota. He helped craft a new vision that took root among Democrats and formed the backbone of the Biden administration’s thinking about the world after the scarring scenes of Jan. 6, 2021.

And buoyed by the success of Washington’s support for Kyiv amid Russia’s invasion, he now had confidence to offer a different vision for U.S. policy at home and abroad. It was Bidenism, fully embraced by the president, but a brainchild of the national security adviser who, due to his young age, could serve as an ideological leader within the Democratic Party for decades to come.

The Bidenism that Sullivan helped define has infused every corner of this administration’s foreign policy. A focus on the home front was one reason Biden chose to withdraw from Afghanistan. A rock-ribbed belief in keeping U.S. forces out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has helped shape America’s response. And China’s decades of cheating in global economics led Team Biden to adopt some elements of Donald Trump’s trade war. The elements of Trumpism that Biden and Sullivan adopted — though they would probably prefer the term “populism” — could help Biden fend off Trump’s ideological challenges to his foreign policy heading into the 2024 election.

To arrive at this new outlook, Sullivan first had to dismantle establishment orthodoxies within himself — the same orthodoxies he now sought to undo at Brookings: That globalization and free trade were an unalloyed good, growing economies and improving people’s lives in the process. What was good for the stock market, in effect, was great for everybody. Given enough time, swelling wallets would produce a steady middle class, one that demands its political and human rights from its government. Even the most repressive regimes, the thinking went, would eventually crumble under the weight of inflowing capital. Consistent pressure via greenbacks did the most good for the most people.

Those theories had decades to prove themselves right after World War II. At Brookings, where that thinking took hold and was championed for years, Sullivan was about to assert that it was time to move on.

On the surface, Sullivan was an unlikely candidate to deliver the message. Years earlier, while at law school at Yale, Sullivan sought out Strobe Talbott, who had recently been named the director of the university’s Center for the Study of Globalization. Talbott — an archetypal patrician who had attended the best schools, campaigned for George McGovern, and was Time magazine’s lead writer on Soviet-American relations before joining the State Department during his friend Bill Clinton’s administration — became a mentor.

The two men shared an ideology that was mainstream among the Democratic and Republican parties. “Those were the heady days when the mainstream foreign policy consensus was that globalization was a force for good,” Sullivan recalled in a 2017 interview. There was, of course, reason to think this. Capitalism helped keep the Soviet Union at bay, China still wasn’t a major power and building the economies of enemies turned them into friends. Globalization, per its champions, had the benefit of making many people rich while making the world safer in general and U.S. foreign policy less costly.

Talbott, one of those champions, would go on to lead and then serve as a distinguished fellow at Brookings. Whether Sullivan meant to distance himself from his beliefs during those “heady days” may have been intentional, or may have been a happy accident of the calendar.

As he strode up to the think tank, perched prominently on Massachusetts Avenue in downtown Washington, D.C., flanked by other prestigious institutions and embassies, Sullivan looked like any U.S. official at the upper echelons of power. His straw hair was matted down, swept to the right. He wore a typical dark-blue suit and a bright white shirt, muted by a gray tie. The national security adviser looked like he was about to give a speech like any other, like thousands before it by D.C.’s elite. Not this time.

“After the Second World War, the United States led a fragmented world to build a new international economic order. It lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It sustained thrilling technological revolutions. And it helped the United States and many other nations around the world achieve new levels of prosperity. But the last few decades revealed cracks in those foundations,” Sullivan said to a crowd of journalists, government officials and well-known experts. In other words, the Marshall Plan and the tech boom during the 1990s were products of their time and place. They wouldn’t necessarily have the desired effects in a modern context.

“A shifting global economy left many working Americans and their communities behind. A financial crisis shook the middle class. A pandemic exposed the fragility of our supply chains. A changing climate threatened lives and livelihoods. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscored the risks of overdependence.”

That was the problem. What was the solution? Instead of rampant globalization, Sullivan’s pitch was that a reenergized American economy made the country stronger. It was time to remake the Rust Belt into a Cobalt Corridor, to establish industries that led not only to blue-collar work but to azure-collared careers. If that was done right, a strengthened America could act more capably around the globe.

“This moment demands that we forge a new consensus. That’s why the United States, under President Biden, is pursuing a modern industrial and innovation strategy — both at home and with partners around the world,” he said.

Sullivan would go on to list why America needed to take this new path. Manufacturing in the United States had lost out to cheaper labor abroad. Growth for growth’s sake was inherently unequal, not benefiting everyone. The economic rise of other countries and their integration into the world economy didn’t automatically make them more democratic — some, namely China, simultaneously grew more powerful and despotic. And the free market at home and globalization’s effects wrought havoc on the climate while failing to incentivize greener means of production and industries.

Implicitly, Sullivan said the main assumptions undergirding America’s foreign and economic policy had been wrong for decades. China, and the Washington belief that liberalized markets would eventually lead to democracy within the halls of power in Beijing, was the most glaring example.

“By the time President Biden came into office, we had to contend with the reality that a large non-market economy had been integrated into the international economic order in a way that posed considerable challenges,” he said, citing China’s large-scale subsidization of multiple sectors that crushed America’s competitiveness across industries. Making matters worse, Sullivan continued, “economic integration didn’t stop China from expanding its military ambitions.” It also didn’t stop countries like Russia from invading their neighbors.

Sullivan, the accomplished debater, was dismantling, point by point, the dominant worldview that Biden held for decades and that the national security adviser grew up believing until Trump won the election in November 2016. He was, wittingly or not, offering a mea culpa for once being an acolyte of the foreign policy establishment. Now, cloaked in power, he was trying to right his perceived wrongs.

Righting wrongs was a throughline during Sullivan’s first two years at the helm alongside Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the rest of the team. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, despite the deadly chaos, was the right decision, he believed. The war was unwinnable, and there were other priorities to pursue. But, having missed the warning signs leading up to the takeover of Kabul, and with the trauma of seeing Russia take Crimea and a bite out of eastern Ukraine in 2014 still fresh, Sullivan vowed not to be steps behind as the Kremlin plotted to seize the whole of Ukraine.

Standing in front of the esteemed audience, Sullivan was telling them he didn’t want to be caught flat-footed as the global economy reshaped around them. The U.S. government would be proactive, prepared and proud in search of an industrial strategy to undergird American power. Without saying the words, he was offering a plan to make America great again.

The speech served as the grandest example of the significant rethink that occurred in the Biden administration’s first half of the first term. A self-proclaimed “A-Team” came together to move beyond the Trump era, but in some ways they embraced elements of it. Not the nativist demagoguery, but the need to return to fundamentals: a healthy middle class powered by a humming industrial base, a humility about what the U.S. military alone can accomplish, a solid cadre of allies, attention to the most existential threats and a refresh of the tenets that sustain American democracy. Sullivan proposed an old road map to a new future.

“This strategy will take resolve — it will take a dedicated commitment to overcoming the barriers that have kept this country and our partners from building rapidly, efficiently, and fairly as we were able to do in the past,” Sullivan said at Brookings. “But it is the surest path to restoring the middle class, to producing a just and effective clean-energy transition, to securing critical supply chains, and, through all of this, to repairing faith in democracy itself.”

America was ready for renewal. The world was there to remake. There were at least two more years to get it done.

Andy Kim and Tammy Murphy spar over qualifications in first NJ Senate debate

Politico -

The two leading Democratic candidates for New Jersey's U.S. Senate seat sparred Sunday night more over each other's qualifications than their policy positions.

Over 90 minutes in the primary's first debate, Rep. Andy Kim and first lady Tammy Murphy shared common ideas, including supporting a national right to abortion, increased gun safety laws and fighting to combat the effects of climate change. They disagreed on implementation for certain issues — Murphy, for example, cited Kim’s lack of support for Medicare for All legislation as a red flag, though Kim affirmed his support for universal healthcare through other methods.

The debate — hosted by On New Jersey, NJ Globe and Rider University — was the first time Kim and Murphy faced off in public since the indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez. They and two other candidates — Lawrence Hamm and Patricia Campos-Medina, who did not make the debate — are seeking the Democratic nomination in June.

Kim and Murphy fielded questions ranging from aid to Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war to local issues such as health care and affordability.

Where the two disagreed primarily, however, was on the other candidate’s fitness for the role. Kim heavily criticized Tammy Murphy’s history of donating to Republican candidates — including George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush — and remaining a registered Republican after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. He questioned Murphy’s loyalty to voting with the Democratic coalition in the Senate.

She responded with her work re-building the Democratic Party since 2017, when her husband, Gov. Phil Murphy, was the nominee.

“I haven't voted for a Republican in a general election in more than two decades. And you know, I've been a Democrat for 10 years,” she said. “I think you have to know my values are strong, they’re Democratic core values, and I am one who is out there every day fighting for our state and making us stronger.

In a post-debate press appearance, Kim reiterated these concerns, saying that “New Jersey voters are going to come away with a lot more questions about her Republican past.”

Early in the debate, Kim also called on Murphy to commit to sharing the highly-coveted “county line,” in which county party-endorsed candidates are grouped together on the ballot and appear more legitimate to voters. Murphy did not directly respond.

“We just saw that constantly in her debate performance, just the defense of systems,” he added.

Murphy raised her own concerns about Kim’s ability to stand up to Donald Trump, the former president and Republican front-runner for the nomination. She said that Kim was “one of only eight Democrats who has voted to help Donald Trump in several situations,” including on border security and funding. Kim responded that he had voted alongside President Joe Biden “100 percent of the time,” adding that he voted to impeach Trump twice while also representing a district he won twice.

“So it shows that we can be able to do what is right for the country," Kim said.

Affordability dominated much of the policy-centered portions of debate, including fare hikes","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.politico.com/news/2024/01/24/double-digit-fare-hikes-for-nj-transit-riders-as-agency-faces-massive-deficit-00137579#:~:text=Phil%20Murphy%20since%20taking%20office%20in%202018.&text=NEW%20YORK%20%E2%80%94%20New%20Jersey%20Gov,New%20York%20City%20for%20work.","_id":"0000018d-bfeb-d69d-abad-bffb81340002","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"0000018d-bfeb-d69d-abad-bffb81340003","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">fare hikes to NJ Transit recently announced by Gov. Phil Murphy. Kim criticized the increase as a policy that “is going to hurt the most vulnerable New Jersey and the people that are already struggling, and they tell me that they feel like they're just being squeezed and it’s death from a thousand cuts. This is the wrong move to make right now.”

Murphy did not criticize her husband's fare hikes. Instead, she said that she's going to be a "relentless fighter" for federal dollars back into the transit system.

2024 Election Offers Choices Few Want

Real Clear Politics -

It's striking how little passion most Americans have for either candidate with an election just nine months away. Instead of putting out yard signs, people want to avoid politics as much as possible.

‘March for democracy’ draws multitudes in Mexico

Politico -

MEXICO CITY — Thousands of demonstrators cloaked in pink marched through cities in Mexico and abroad on Sunday in what they called a “march for democracy” targeting the country’s ruling party in advance of the country’s June 2 elections.

The demonstrations called by Mexico’s opposition parties advocated for free and fair elections in the Latin American nation and railed against corruption the same day presidential front-runner Claudia Sheinbaum officially registered as a candidate for ruling party Morena.

Sheinbaum is largely seen as a continuation candidate of Mexico’s highly popular populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He’s adored by many voters who say he bucked the country’s elite parties from power in 2018 and represents the working class.

But the 70-year-old president has also been accused of making moves that endanger the country’s democracy. Last year, the leader slashed funding for the country’s electoral agency, the National Electoral Institute, and weakened oversight of campaign spending, something INE’s head said could “wind up poisoning democracy itself.” The agency’s color, pink, has been used as a symbol by demonstrators.

López Obrador has also attacked journalists in hours-long press briefings, has frequently attacked Mexico’s judiciary and claimed judges are part of a conservative conspiracy against his administration.

In Mexico City on Sunday, thousands of people dressed in pink flocked to the the city’s main plaza roaring “get López out.” Others carried signs reading “the power of the people is greater than the people in power.”

Among the opposition organizations marching were National Civic Front, Yes for Mexico, Citizen Power, Civil Society Mexico, UNE Mexico and United for Mexico.

“Democracy doesn’t solve lack of water, it doesn’t solve hunger, it doesn’t solve a lot of things. But without democracy you can’t solve anything,” said Enrique de la Madrid Cordero, a prominent politician from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in a video posted to social media calling for people to join the protests.

The PRI held uninterrupted power in Mexico for more than 70 years.

Marches were organized in a hundred cities across the country, and in other cities in the United States and Spain.

Still, the president remains highly popular and his ally Sheinbaum appears set to coast easily into the presidency. She leads polls by a whopping 64% over her closest competition, Xóchitl Gálvez, who has polled at 31% of the votes.

López Obrador railed against the protests during is Friday morning press briefing, questioning whether the organizers cared about democracy.

“They are calling the demonstration to defend corruption, they are looking for the return of the corrupt, although they say they care about democracy,” he said.

Over 300 detained in Russia as country mourns Navalny

Politico -

Over 300 people were detained in Russia while paying tribute to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died at a remote Arctic penal colony, a prominent rights group reported Sunday.

The sudden death of Navalny, 47, was a crushing blow to many Russians, who had pinned their hopes for the future on President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest foe. Navalny remained vocal in his unrelenting criticism of the Kremlin even after surviving a nerve agent poisoning and receiving multiple prison terms.

The news reverberated across the globe, with many world leaders blaming the death on Putin and his government. In an exchange with reporters shortly after leaving a Saturday church service, President Joe Biden reiterated his stance that Putin was ultimately to blame for Navalny’s death. “The fact of the matter is, Putin is responsible. Whether he ordered it, he’s responsible for the circumstance,” Biden said. “It’s a reflection of who he is. It cannot be tolerated.”

Other politicians took a more cautious stance. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said Sunday that he wouldn’t “jump to conclusions” over Navalny’s death. “If the death is under suspicion, we must first carry out an investigation to find out what the citizen (Navalny) died of,” Lula said in a press conference after returning from an African Union summit in Ethiopia on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, published a picture of the couple on Instagram Sunday in her first social media post since her husband’s death. The caption read simply: “I love you.”

Hundreds of people in dozens of Russian cities streamed to ad-hoc memorials and monuments to victims of political repression with flowers and candles on Friday and Saturday to pay tribute to the politician. In 39 cities, police detained 366 people by Sunday evening, according to the OVD-Info rights group that tracks political arrests and provides legal aid. Earlier in the weekend, the group reported 401 detentions in two days, but later updated the number and said that their count “may change both up and down over the next few days” as information is being verified.

More than 200 arrests were made in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, the group said. By Sunday evening, court officials in St. Petersburg reported rulings ordering 154 of those detained to serve from one to 14 days in jail.

Among those detained there was Grigory Mikhnov-Voitenko, a priest of the Apostolic Orthodox Church — a religious group independent of the Russian Orthodox Church — who announced plans on social media to hold a memorial service for Navalny and was arrested on Saturday morning outside his home. He was charged with organizing a rally and placed in a holding cell in a police precinct, but was later hospitalized with a stroke, OVD-Info reported.

Memorial events also took place in cities across the world.

In Berlin, members of the Russian activist group Pussy Riot held a demonstration outside of the Russian Embassy, holding banners that read “murderers” in English and Russian.

The group, which included Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Lusya Shtein, as well as longtime Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol and former Russian state media journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, planned to march with the banner to the city’s Brandenburg Gate but were ultimately stopped by police.

Tolokonnikova told The Associated Press after the demonstration that such actions were meant to show “that we exist.”

“We show ourselves to each other and support each other, and show with this action that Russia still has a future, and the idea of a ‘beautiful Russia of the future’ hasn’t died,” she said, using a term Navalny has famously coined. “Right now (some are) saying that hope died together with Navalny. But it seems to me that with (the death of) Navalny it wasn’t the hope that died, but rather responsibility was born.”

Dozens of people in Romania’s capital of Bucharest also gathered outside the Russian Embassy on Sunday to pay tribute to the opposition leader.

Many lit candles and placed flowers next to a memorial portrait of Navalny, while several people brandished placards that read: “You don’t win free elections by murdering the opposition.”

In Finland, a group of Russian residents gathered signatures for a petition proposing a name change for a park adjacent to the Russian Embassy in the capital, Helsinki, to Navalny Park in honor of the deceased opposition figure.

The news of Navalny’s death came a month before a presidential election in Russia that is widely expected to give Putin another six years in power.

Questions about the cause of death lingered, and it remained unclear when the authorities would release Navalny’s body. More than 29,000 people have submitted requests to the Russian government asking for the politician’s remains to be handed over to his relatives, OVD-Info said Sunday.

Navalny’s team said Saturday that the politician was “murdered” and accused the authorities of deliberately stalling the release of the body. Navalny’s mother and lawyers received contradictory information from various institutions they visited in their quest to retrieve the body.

“Everything there is covered with cameras in the colony. Every step he took was filmed from all angles all these years. Each employee has a video recorder. In two days, there has been not a single video leaked or published. There is no room for uncertainty here,” Navalny’s closest ally and strategist, Leonid Volkov, said Sunday.

Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service reported that Navalny felt sick after a walk Friday and became unconscious at the penal colony in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow. An ambulance arrived, but he couldn’t be revived, the service said, adding that the cause of death is still “being established.”

Navalny had been jailed since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. He received three prison terms since his arrest, on a number of charges he has rejected as politically motivated.

John Bolton: ‘If Trump is elected, there will be celebrations in the Kremlin’

Politico -

If former President Donald Trump wins another term in the White House, Russian leaders will be celebrating, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton said Sunday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced support for Trump’s likely general election opponent, President Joe Biden.

“Biden, he’s more experienced, more predictable, he’s a politician of the old formation,” Putin said during an interview with Russian state media last week. “But we will work with any U.S. leader whom the American people trust.”

Bolton called the comments a “clear disinformation effort,” by the Russian leader, “to give Trump the opportunity — which he is foolish enough to take — to say, well, I thought that was actually a compliment to me,” Bolton told MSNBC’s Jen Psaki.

“I mean, if Trump is elected, there will be celebrations in the Kremlin, there's no doubt about it, because Putin thinks that he is an easy mark,” he added.

Trump addressed Putin’s comment during a South Carolina rally last week. "President Putin of Russia has just given me a great compliment, actually," Trump told supporters, in reference to Putin’s stated preference for another Biden term.

The comments came after Trump earlier this month said he would encourage Russia to invade NATO allies who didn’t meet the alliance’s defense spending mandate. The former president has yet to address the death of Putin foe Alexei Navalny, which has been meant by widespread denunciations of Putin.

'There’s only Plan A': Defense leaders fear failure in Ukraine

Politico -

MUNICH — Four American senators recounted a story Ukrainian officials told them at the Munich Security Conference: A soldier in a muddy trench with Russian artillery exploding nearby, scrolling on his phone for signs the U.S. House would approve military aid.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), leader of one of the congressional delegations, said it was “heartbreaking” to hear the tale. “For young Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines, this is a persistent topic of conversation,” the senator relayed, a somber tone in his voice.

The episode highlighted the pall over this weekend’s gathering of transatlantic-minded officials and dignitaries in the Bavarian capital. Ukraine’s worsening prospects on the battlefield and questions about America’s commitment to Kyiv dominated the annual event. The gloom was amplified by news of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s death, which hit just as leaders were arriving on the event's first day.

Many politicians and officials used the moment to press that Ukraine would lose the war without the $60 billion more in U.S. military aid currently awaiting a vote in the House. But they also sounded far from certain about what a victory might look like for Ukraine even with that boost.

The conference comes as confidence in whether President Joe Biden can deliver for Ukraine is particularly low and as former President Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, works to undermine the package.

The plan now, as detailed or lamented in interviews with eight U.S. lawmakers and five foreign officials, is to just keep the Ukrainian military from collapsing.

Many sidestepped the question of what a Ukrainian victory would look like, or when it might happen.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the aid package would be a “game changer” for Ukraine. But he declined to say that the support would ensure a Ukrainian triumph, simply stating American assistance was Kyiv’s last, best hope.

“I am not aware of any other way for, in the short term, the Ukrainians to get the arms and ammunition and tools they need, other than from the United States,” added Warner — one of 44 U.S. lawmakers at Munich.

The range of battlefield possibilities remains enormous, with or without more weapons flowing to Ukraine. “Somewhere between Afghanistan, driving the Russians out with essentially partisan guerrilla warfare, and great-armies conflict, like we have right now, is where it ends up,” Whitehouse said.

Ukraine is low on ammunition and infantry. The decade-long stronghold of Avdiivka fell to the Russians over the weekend, giving the Kremlin its first major conquest since May. Before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy changed leadership at the top of his country's military, generals insisted the president had to mobilize 500,000 more troops to keep pace with a larger, still-stronger Russian force that appears willing to take massive casualties to gain just a few yards of ground.

“When a citizen of Europe reads that Ukraine retreated from Avdiivka, he should realize one single fact: Russia has got a few kilometers closer to his own home,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in an interview. “Every advance Russia makes in Ukraine brings Russian weapons closer to the home of a middle-class European.”

Senior administration officials insist America’s commitment to Ukraine’s cause hasn’t diminished. “Putin is not going to stop unless he is stopped,” said U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, who arrived in Munich fresh from watching U.S. troops train a new Ukrainian battalion at an American base in Germany. “And for adversaries who are watching what's happening in Ukraine, and what it says about American will, I would not want them to draw the conclusion that we'll let a leader like Putin do whatever he wants.”

The best — and only — option to prevent that, they argue, is still the one on the table: Congress passing the military assistance. “Pass the supplemental. That’s it. Let’s destroy Putin’s army. The Ukrainians know how to do that, so let’s help them do it,” added Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo).

Lawmakers from both parties in Munich assured ally after ally that the House would eventually greenlight the aid, with some predicting passage as soon as March. They insisted the majority of representatives would support the bill once on the House floor. But Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) feared an X factor: the Republican party’s leader, former President Donald Trump.

“Former President Trump appears to be trying to derail support for the current bipartisan supplemental passed in the Senate,” the House Armed Services Committee member said in an interview.

Zelenskyy, clearly worried about that prospect, used public opportunities to plead his nation’s case. “For us, this package is vital. We do not currently look into alternatives because we are counting on the United States as our strategic partner,” he said at a news conference with Vice President Kamala Harris on Saturday.

There’s no Plan B if the lawmakers fail to greenlight the package, Harris confirmed. “There’s only Plan A.”

Confidence in what Ukraine can accomplish — and in President Joe Biden — is seemingly at its lowest point in two years. “The U.S. wants a photo op of happy allies working together,” one NATO official, who like some others in this story was granted anonymity to offer candid views, said on the sidelines of the event. “But without that real American support, without that leadership, this is going to be very difficult.”

Ukrainian officials aren’t talking about alternatives, insisting that they need the arms and ammunition — particularly Taurus and the long-range Army Tactical Missile System — to fend off Russia. One Ukrainian parliamentarian said there’s worry in Kyiv about the lack of leadership shown by Washington both in passing the supplemental and in sending — and nudging allies along — to send more long-range munitions to Ukraine. The official had just come from the frontlines in the south and said that the lack of munitions are directly resulting in Ukraine losing ground, and losing soldiers.

At the Munich Security Conference last year nerves were visible, but were not as all-consuming. The U.S. and its allies had rallied to Ukraine’s defense, taking back seized territory from Russia and preparing for a decisive counteroffensive. There was a long road ahead, but the fight trended in a positive direction. It was just days afterward that Biden stood in Warsaw, after a surprise visit with Zelenskyy in Ukraine, announcing that “Kyiv stands proud, it stands tall, and most important, it stands free.”

But the counteroffensive failed and the ground campaign stalled, causing both Ukrainian and Russian forces to play a game of artillery ping pong across the 600-mile front. Kyiv has seen more success in the Black Sea, sinking several Russian ships in the strategic waterway, but it didn’t do much to improve the optics of a war that’s trudging along. No one on either side of the Atlantic — and especially in Kyiv and Moscow — can predict what’s to come.

“We will have a Russia problem no matter how the war ends,” said Adm. Rob Bauer, chair of NATO’s Military Committee, who also warned that while the West “might have been overly optimistic in 2023” about the war, “but we have to guard against being overly pessimistic in 2024.”

The uncertainty has empowered Ukraine skeptics. They insist the U.S. cut off the tap and focus on the homefront instead. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who arrived in Munich to offer a countering viewpoint, said he was supportive of Kyiv’s fight but that America couldn’t produce enough weapons to arm Ukraine and protect the U.S. at the same time.

“Europe has to be a little more self-sufficient” in defending itself” he insisted in a solo news conference outside the conference venue. “You guys have to step up. There's going to be a pivot in American policy focused in East Asia. Given that reality, the Europeans have to take a more aggressive role.”

Most lawmakers, though, didn’t want to leave Munich without offering hope. Time and again, they pushed back on the idea that Ukraine was irreversibly on the ropes.

“I don't see how Russia ever wins this war. Their definition of winning is taking over the country and occupying it. They are never going to occupy Ukraine,” said Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Wars end when one or both sides have fought to the point of exhaustion, and then they sit down and talk. Neither side is there.”

And Whitehouse argued Ukraine would never stop resisting against Russia, even if it doesn’t receive more support: “There is literally zero chance that the Ukrainians will peacefully abide Russian occupation.”

Suzanne Lynch and Josh Posaner contributed to this report.


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