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First Look

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Washington Post Live’s “First Look” offers a smart, inside take on the day’s politics. Jonathan Capehart will host a reporter debrief followed by a roundtable discussion with Washington Post opinions columnists. Tune in for news and analysis you can’t get anywhere else on Friday, June 11 at 9:00am ET.

Video Transcript


Good morning. I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for "The Washington Post." Welcome to "First Look," "Washington Post Live's" one-stop shop for news and analysis. And with President Biden on the first leg of his first foreign trip as president of the United States, let's start things off with "Washington Post" foreign affairs columnist, Ishaan Tharoor.

Ishaan, it's been a long time. Great to see you. Welcome to "First Look."

ISHAAN THAROOR: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me, Jonathan.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: All right. The president and Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a renewed version of the Atlantic Charter, which was first signed by FDR and Winston Churchill at the dawn of World War II. Talk about the significance of that.

ISHAAN THAROOR: Right. It's a heavily symbolic gesture. This is not some kind of major treaty that they're inking. The 1941 Atlanta Charter was a sort of document of understanding between two World War II allies that went on to undergird the principles beneath NATO and the Western transatlantic military alliance in the decades to come.

80 years since then, Biden and Johnson are sort of signing on to it again. They're renewing it in some way and updating it to address other issues like cybersecurity, climate change, and the other grab bag of issues that we've been talking about as Biden kind of wheels around and tries to tackle some of the thorny challenges on the world stage now.

But of course, this is part of Biden's own attempt to sort of reinvigorate US leadership on the world stage. And it's a perfectly symbolic gesture. You know, here he is with the British Prime Minister, like FDR was with Churchill, signing on to a document before they go into a series of meetings. Where we'll see the US and many of its allies put forward some pretty ambitious proposals about reckoning with climate change, about facing the pandemic, about perhaps implementing serious reform when it comes to corporate taxation. So this is an indication that Biden is trying to really up the ante a bit.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Right. Before he took off on that trip, he wrote an op-ed for "The Washington Post" where he wrote, quote, "This trip is about realizing America's renewed commitment to our allies and partners and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age." How is President Biden's message being received on the world stage after his predecessor's America First agenda?

ISHAAN THAROOR: Biden is reading essentially off a script that Trump gave him. If you remember, of course, over the last four years, events like NATO summits and the G7 became these real sort of arenas for confrontation. The sources of acrimony between the US and its allies as Trump said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing or tore up understandings.

Biden, of course, is very eager to show the contrast in his leadership and his style of leadership. And absolutely he has embraced his agenda as one of a clash of ideologies. He really thinks that he is going to be-- he and the US and the US's allies can represent and stand for this bulwark of liberal democracies as they face off against China and a surge of illiberal nationalists, even in the West. And that is a mission and a vision that is rather welcomed by European policy elites.

We have polling that shows that public attitudes in Europe toward the US have almost rebounded since Trump came to office. And Biden is a relatively well-liked figure, especially compared to Trump. But you also have other public polling that shows that there is still a bit of distrust around the US. And there is still a bit of a wariness in Europe about what the US can be and what it should be on the world stage and what their own governments should be doing, vis-a-vis getting behind an American agenda.

And lastly, of course, there is an awareness in Europe and among European policy elites that Biden may not be long for this job. And that you could see in a few years' time a new form of Trumpist populism or Trumpist nationalism returning to the White House. You could also see real changes in Europe itself, with-- we know Angela Merkel is leaving this year, and you may see a new German government that has a slightly different bent. And you may also see Emmanuel Macron next year lose reelection. And that would lead to a real sea change in the European political conversation, as well as really raise question marks on what a liberal American president can do with Europe as a whole.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Ishaan, talk about how-- you listen to a lot of things that are sort of on the minds of Europeans when it comes to not just President Biden, but to the United States in general. How much is President Biden's focus on China and competing with China and blunting the influence of China having on the way Europeans are looking at President Biden in particular and the United States in general?

ISHAAN THAROOR: I think it's a huge part of it. This G7 summit that's happening-- and they've also invited India, Australia, and South Korea to attend-- this is a broadening out of the mission of the G7. And it's been perceived quite pragmatically as the early formation of a kind of anti-China or counter-China grouping. The NATO summit, which Biden will go to after the G7 summit, China will-- the shadow of China will loom large over all the proceedings there. And we know that the Europeans also have hardening views on their approach to China.

A major European-Chinese investment deal was put in deep freeze after China sanctioned a bunch of EU officials. We have polling that shows European publics are really animated around the cause of human rights vis-a-vis China and specifically, of course, what we're seeing in Xinjiang, the far Western region where the Uighur minority has faced a campaign of repression. So this is a real issue. And I think the Biden administration is right to recognize that in Europe, they have a set of allies who can really cooperate when it comes to confronting China and hopefully, in their view, changing China's behavior in a direction that's more productive.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Ishaan, in the couple of minutes that we have left, I have to get you on the big meeting that everyone is looking forward to. And that is the meeting between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. What can we expect? They've known each other for a very long time. They have dealt with each other for a very long time. What can we expect from that meeting next week?

ISHAAN THAROOR: It's probably the most fascinating encounter on this trip. The optics are, of course, very important. If you remember in 2018, when Trump kind of barnstormed through Europe, picked a fight with Theresa May, upset officials in NATO, and then showed up in Helsinki, where he appeared in that now infamous side-by-side conference with Putin. Biden will very clearly want to draw a direct parallel to that.

And you can expect a set of tense atmospherics. You can expect probably some barbed statements hurled at each other if there is a kind of joint press conference. And I think the main message that Biden will send is that he is approaching Putin after consultations with all of the US's European allies.

He's going to have had this G7 summit, which, you know, Russia was once part of the G8 but they kicked him out. He's then going to go to NATO, and there will be a lot of talk there about Russia and Belarus and the situation there. And he's going to then wheel around and face Putin. And Biden is very directly going to cloak himself in the mantle of kind of broader NATO transatlantic support. He is going to bring the agenda of his allies to the table as well. And that's going to be a huge contrast to what Trump did in 2018.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Ishaan Tharoor, I introduced you as "The Washington Post's" foreign affairs columnist, but you are also the author of the "WorldViews" newsletter. So I had to put that out there as well. Thank you very much for coming to "First Look." Have a great weekend.

ISHAAN THAROOR: Thank you for having me, Jonathan.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: And now let's go to the opinion side of "The Washington Post," where we will find "Washington Post" columnist EJ Dionne and Chuck Lane-- newbie. Welcome both to "First Look."

CHARLES LANE: Thank you, Jonathan. It's great to--

EJ DIONNE: Great to be with you and with Chuck.

CHARLES LANE: Great to be on your show.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: All right, so let's talk about the-- before we get into all the summit stuff and the infrastructure stuff, let's talk about the story that broke last night in "The New York Times," "Hunting Leaks, Trump Officials Focused on Democrats in Congress." Including lead impeachment manager-- who went on to become lead impeachment manager, Adam Schiff of California, and a bunch of other people, including a child, a minor. So I'm going to start with you, Chuck. What should Attorney General Merrick Garland do in response? This is pretty spectacular.

CHARLES LANE: I bet he's known at least some of this since he came in and is probably already-- at least one hopes-- already trying to probe and get to the bottom of it. I think what they have to do is provide transparency. I think they have to-- I mean, this is all events that occurred in the past during the Trump administration, unlike the situation where the Justice Department was tracking reporters' metadata, which did seem to continue into the Biden administration.

This is one that's all in the past. And it would seem to me that part of the big mission of the Biden administration generally was to restore faith in the impartiality of the Justice Department and to show that it wasn't going to be used for partisan reasons. And I think they have to lay bare everything that happened here and why. And if there's any accountability to be administered, they have to pursue that too.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Mhm. EJ, correct me if I'm wrong or if I'm being hyperbolic in my own mind, but this seems--

EJ DIONNE: Never. Never.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: --like incredible abuse-- this seems like an incredible abuse of power.

EJ DIONNE: It is. You know, it's not just a normal leak investigation. We've had normal leak investigations. This really looks like Trump, through his Justice Department, was targeting some of his toughest critics, the people who were asking the toughest questions of him in Congress. Particularly Adam Schiff, also Eric Swalwell. And so yes, this is a big abuse.

And I agree with Chuck, obviously, on transparency. I think there are calls-- and I think they're correct-- for, at the very least, to begin with an Inspector General investigation. One of the things we really need to know here is, did Trump directly or indirectly signal the Justice Department or tell it, let's look into these guys, let's see what they're up to? And that would be a real problem.

And when Attorney General Barr-- this started before Barr, but it continued under Barr-- when he testified before Congress, he was really cagey in answering questions about whether Trump directed him to carry out investigations. He never really gave a straight answer. This may be one of the reasons why. I think what you're seeing here is a really tough conflict that Attorney General Merrick Garland faces.

On the one hand, he wants to signal that this Justice Department, unlike the Trump Justice Department, will never be politicized. So he's making calls that are making a lot of supporters of the president unhappy, in some cases continuing certain Trump policies. On the other hand, there is an obligation to hold the Trump administration and Trump himself accountable for misdeeds during our time on Trump's watch.

And so I think this is a really good case of where Garland is going to have to figure out not only how does he show that the Department isn't politicized, but how does he show he's also committed to accountability for Trump. I don't envy him these choices, but they've got to be made.

CHARLES LANE: I just would add, Jonathan, I don't see any doubt that-- I wouldn't doubt that this was done because Trump wanted it done. He was maniacal about leaks, and particularly about-- I forget what his abusive term was for Adam Schiff, but for Adam Schiff. So I don't think there's a lot of doubt in that department.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Right. I was watching--

EJ DIONNE: I agree with that. That's what we want to know more specifically and nail that down. But I agree with what Chuck said.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: On one of the new shows this morning, they showed a clip of then-President Trump complaining, saying that Adam Schiff should be looked into as a possible leak in the stories. And then to put a finer point on what you were saying earlier, EJ, about then-Attorney General Bill Barr being a little cagey on the question as to whether he was ordered or asked to look into-- investigate others, those questions came from then-senator from California, Kamala Harris.

All right, let's turn our attention to all the doings that's going on right now in the United Kingdom. And Chuck, there is an interesting opinion piece in "The Times" of London this week, saying President O'Biden-- [LAUGHING] President O'Biden-- President Biden is repeating President Obama's foreign policy errors when it comes to Russia and China. Do you think that's fair?

CHARLES LANE: I really don't, although he is Irish. His name is not O'Biden. I think Joe Biden is actually being much more cautious, in some ways, with both. I do think with respect to Russia, he did do one very substantial concession, which was to essentially back off the gas pipeline that the US has opposed and essentially stand aside and let Russia and Germany complete that gas pipeline. So there's some softening in that respect.

But I think he's pivoted in a pretty tough way on China in particular, and kept a lot of the policies, frankly, that Trump imposed, particularly on trade. So I think clearly Obama-- sorry, Biden's tone is going to be more controlled, more diplomatic, more professional. But I think in substance, it's-- he's going to try, or is trying to maintain a tough stance on both.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Mhm. And in fact "The Times" of London piece points out, "There will be warm words for friends and cold ones for the Russian leader. But American deeds will tell another story."

To pick up on something Chuck just said about President Biden pivoting in a tough way towards China, President Boris Johnson invited Australia, South Korea, and India to attend this summit as guest countries. My thinking when looking at those countries, I'm thinking, did he do that not only to get broader perspectives at the table, but as a way of sending a signal that the Western alliance is going to do everything it can to blunt the influence of China?

EJ DIONNE: I think the short answer to your question is--

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Prime minister, sorry.

EJ DIONNE: --absolutely yes. I think that in particular, Australia has been under enormous pressure from China. And I think that you're seeing signals of trying to build, if not an anti-China alliance, at least an alliance of countries that say, we don't want China to dominate Asia. In the case of all of these, they are democracies, and that they will stand up for democracy. And democracy is a little bit shaky in India now, but it's still clearly a democracy. And so yes, I think that was a signal.

I also think this Atlantic Charter that Biden and Boris Johnson signed, it is largely symbolic. Johnson really loves the idea. He's a biographer of Churchill, and so anything that compares Boris Johnson to Churchill might make him happy. But I think that it's significant that this, like the original Atlantic Charter, it's not just about an alliance, it's about certain values.

And so this charter talks about Democratic values. It talks about the importance of shared prosperity, about acting on climate change, about agreements on health care. So I think it's an interesting signal that this alliance across democracies is not just about foreign policy, it's about a series of broader, substantive commitments.

Now, a lot of times those commitments can go up in smoke in the face of realpolitik. But I don't think it's meaningless that these leaders signed this as Churchill and Roosevelt signed the original one, which really did signal about 40 years of policy by the democracies.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: You know, Chuck, President Biden says he's at the G7 summit on behalf of democracy. And so I'm wondering, is the president demonstrating the capacity of democracies to meet the challenges of the new age? Is maybe the vaccine announcement yesterday, is that part of it?

CHARLES LANE: Well, this is a theme that they've announced early on in the administration. Tony Blinken, who's the secretary of state, obviously, has sounded it, that there's a big contest going on in the world now to show that liberal democracy can still, in effect, get the job done for the people in a situation where there's great competition from authoritarian systems that claim to be more effective at delivering the goods.

And to pick up on something that Ishaan said earlier, this is a theme that's not just relevant as between the transatlantic alliance and Russia and China, but also within the transatlantic alliance. Obviously there's a sort of a battle for democracy within the United States, but also within Europe, where countries like Hungary in particular have gone in an illiberal direction.

So I think this is something that Joe Biden clearly-- and Tony Blinken-- clearly believe is a theme of this presidency. And that it's something that very much engages them both on the domestic front, as well as the international one.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: You know, EJ, again, picking up on something Chuck said, where he said the battle for democracy-- you wrote an interesting piece about the conflict between US words and deeds when it comes to democracy. Case in point, President Biden making the case for democracy overseas, but then Congress not being able to pass, for instance, the For the People Act. So how does the president reconcile promoting the United States as the poster child for democratic values while at home there's a stalemate on a bill to uphold democratic values? Small-D, democratic values.

EJ DIONNE: You know, thank you so much for referencing that piece, Jonathan, because I think this is a real problem. And it's not a new problem that we confront. In that column, I cited a report on civil rights in 1947 during the Truman administration, where the authors pointed out that racism in the United States-- lynching, the lack of civil rights for Black Americans-- was being used against us by our non-democratic adversaries in the world.

And it's certainly going to be the case that if some of these measures stand-- you know, the most egregious in some ways is letting political bodies put aside honest counts of votes in elections, you know, as well as absurd things like you can't bring water to people waiting in line to vote-- that this hurts us in the world as we fight for democracy. And I said that, you know, Joe Manchin has said he doesn't want to lift the filibuster, and at the moment he's against the For the People Act. And I argued that, look, Joe Manchin, I would assume, would love to be called a Harry Truman Democrat and that he might go back and look at that old report in the Truman years.

If we're going to stand up for democracy in the world, as a couple of diplomats I spoke with who really love the United States said, if we're going to do that, then we have to walk the walk ourselves. And so I hope Biden, when he comes back from this trip, says, we want to be for democracy in word, but we also want to be for democracy indeed.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Chuck, I want to pick up on something you said in an earlier answer. But it gets to this whole Trumpism versus Biden that you wrote in a column last month about how much has not changed from the Trump administration, Trump agenda, to the Biden agenda so far. You mentioned sort of the stance towards China as an example of that. What exactly are the similarities between Biden and Trump on policy?

CHARLES LANE: Well, in the foreign arena, I would argue that probably the biggest similarity is Afghanistan. And this, of course, is an important issue with the transatlantic allies. We have a lot of troops over there. We Americans tend to forget that, but there's a substantial component of Canadian, European, and other troops assisting the United States. And so Trump was constantly agitating to pull out, cut our losses, and get out of Afghanistan and claim credit for ending the forever war, as he called it.

And Joe Biden has done it. There was no disagreement. It's kind of an unacknowledged agreement, but there was an agreement on those two. And I think that's the kind of thing that our allies, and indeed adversaries around the world focus on very clearly. Because it shows where the broad drift of American opinion, regardless of party, might be heading. And it's a strong signal that the United States felt that it had overcommitted to the Middle East and the greater Middle East and the issue of terrorism and wants to rebalance.

The trick will be-- and it's going to be hard-- achieving this pullout without the collapse of Afghanistan, which a lot of people are afraid of. Which in turn could send a very bad signal of American weakness. So I think Joe Biden has the opportunity to show that, unlike Trump, he is not just cutting and running and abandoning Afghanistan but withdrawing troops under circumstances where the US has a plan to keep the country stable after it's gone.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Let's turn our attention stateside and talk about infrastructure. Because last night-- or late yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators reached a nearly $1 trillion-- it's about $974 billion five-year deal on infrastructure in an infrastructure bill that's more than half of what the president initially proposed. This is for both of you. I'm going to start with you, EJ. Should Democrats get on board with the compromise?

EJ DIONNE: I think the answer is, it depends. First of all, it depends on knowing more about the plan. I think there are sort of a series of tensions here that arise because Democrats have only 50 seats in the Senate and not 60. There's a substantive conflict between two of Biden's promises. One, to do really big things; the other, to create a bipartisan atmosphere where you can find deals. Guess what? Bipartisanship gets in the way of a bigger plan, and that's the problem.

Second is tactical, which is, I think Democrats would jump on this deal if it were the precondition of moderate Democrats-- particularly Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema-- agreeing to a second deal where they would provide 50 votes to pass a Democrats-only deal. If their price to provide a bigger deal is to agree to some sort of smaller bipartisan deal first, I think that the two could go together. And I think there's a lot of discussion of that.

But there's a lot of concern among, you know, we say progressive Democrats, but it's a broad group of Democrats who care about climate, that in particular, Biden's climate promises will go overboard in a compromise. And lastly, Biden really doesn't want to break that promise that he made that he wouldn't raise taxes on people earning under $400,000 a year. And if Biden wants to keep that plan and pay for this plan, that's going to have to be Democrats only, because Republicans don't want to revisit their corporate tax cut.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: You know, Chuck, as I said before, this new bipartisan plan is $974 billion in infrastructure spending over five years-- this is from a report in "The Post"-- which comes to about $1.2 trillion if it's extrapolated over eight years. And the package includes about $579 billion in new spending. So if my math is right in terms of the five-year, that's more than half of the proposed deal. Do you see broader buy-in from Senate Republicans on this new bipartisan proposal?

CHARLES LANE: Well, you know, there are just as many Republicans who have a line in the sand on taxes that even something like is included in this package, like an inflation adjustment to the gas tax, many would consider a tax increase. Mitch McConnell, for what it's worth, has signaled he doesn't want to close the door on this deal. And I suspect the Republican posture is going to be, let's see what the Democrats do, and let's see if we can't cause them to start arguing among themselves over this while we just sort of hang back and watch.

I have to say, on the merits of this, I'm a little bit with EJ. We still don't know enough about the detail. This is very high level of abstraction in this agreement. And yet I am impressed that there's a group of Democrats on this, like Mark Warner is one, you don't normally associate with-- well, who's got a good reputation for being a substantive guy and not a game player up on the Hill.

And so I really think if this got traction, if there was a real prospect of Republican agreement to it-- and I think that's a big if-- it would be difficult for President Biden not to go along with it. But we have to see the details. We have to see the pay force, which is what, of course, they're always the most ambiguous about. And I wouldn't think the Democrats will go for something that has nothing in it that touches wealthy people specifically.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: OK, so in terms of see the details, we are overtime, but I can't let you two fashionistas go without getting you in 10 seconds to react to this. What do you make of First Lady Jill Biden there in England wearing this jacket? As you can see right there, it says "love" on the back. Of course, my mind went to former First Lady Melania Trump after visiting kids separated at the border in a facility in Texas, wearing a jacket that read "I don't really care, do you?" EJ, you go first. 10 seconds. Your thoughts.

EJ DIONNE: Anyone who preaches love is OK with me.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Chuck, top that.

CHARLES LANE: Well, I'm not even wearing a tie, so I don't know why you'd think I'm a fashionista. But I'm with EJ. And I think it is definitely a signal to Europe that we're your friends again.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: All right, we're going to leave it there. EJ Dionne, Chuck Lane, thank you very much for coming to "First Look." Have a great weekend.

EJ DIONNE: Thank you.

CHARLES LANE: Thank you, Jonathan.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: And as always, thank you for tuning in. Come back at noon Eastern today, when David Ignatius will interview former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard. Join me tonight for "Brooks and Capehart" on PBS-- check your local listings. And then join me on Sunday at 10:00 AM Eastern on MSNBC for "The Sunday Show."

Until then, I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for "The Washington Post." Thank you very much for tuning in to "Washington Post Live's" "First Look."