Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.
When the history of this era is written, it will undoubtedly center on a series of tense and tough conversations that unfolded in the West Wing over the last few days. As Russia made good on its threat to invade neighboring Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s White House stressed to anyone willing to listen that such a move from Moscow would be met with immediate condemnation—but not U.S. forces on the battlefield.
As the week unfolded, I chatted by email with two of Capitol Hill’s most seasoned insiders. On the right, Brendan Buck has served as counselor to Speaker and VP nominee Paul Ryan and press secretary to John Boehner. He is now a consultant and teaches a course on crisis and chaos at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Across the aisle, Rodell Mollineau is one of the Democratic Party’s most versatile communicators. A former aide to presidential candidates, Senators and a Governor, Mollineau also led one of the party’s best-funded super PACs. He was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s top spokesman. He is also now a strategist and advises a super PAC backing Biden’s Administration.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
Philip Elliott: So, as we start Tuesday, I’ll go right at the big doubt in my mind: Does Joe Biden have the situation in Ukraine in his control at all? From my seat, it seems to be spiraling out of control, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. Is there a way for him to reset the board this late into the process? We’ve all seen incredible turnarounds in Washington, but this seems like a big pivot.
Brendan Buck: For the time being, nothing else really matters or will break through. Crises like these have a way of completely consuming a presidency. As a political matter that can be helpful—people tend to back our Commander in Chief at times of crisis—or it could be a debacle like we saw with Afghanistan. It’s too early to say how this goes, but it’s going to dominate for a while. The only domestic issue that is going to have any traction over the coming weeks is his SCOTUS pick.
Mollineau: This is going to consume the media, the presidency and all of Europe for the foreseeable future. As for whether Biden has this in his control? He has managed to galvanize NATO—two weeks ago no one could imagine Germany would scrap Nord Stream 2—laid out in stark terms the repercussions of a Russian invasion, and has been clear and direct in his public communication. There is no military option on the table so his sphere of control is otherwise limited.
My lingering question about the SCOTUS pick is this: does the White House have an interest in bumping Russia off the front pages with a Supreme Court nominee? Or is there sufficient real estate for both stories?
Mollineau: I don’t know if SCOTUS bumps Ukraine off of the front page for more than a day or so, especially if Republicans decide they aren’t going to war over the pick.
Mollineau: Upon further reflection, I can think of one event that could put Russia in the background: this supposed trucker convoy coming to DC. If it’s as effective as what happened in Canada…
I’m sorry, but I think either of your kids having a sneeze could roil D.C. streets. Our infrastructure here isn’t built for any disruption. I feel like three trucks and a tweet could send us into a tailspin—way too easy for a handful of folks to declare victory.
Buck: This all comes back to the fact we have choose-your-own-adventure politics in this country. If you’re worried Western democracy is at risk, Ukraine coverage is there for you. If you think COVID restrictions are evil tyranny, you can lock into pictures of snarled traffic in the suburbs of Washington. But for a White House that needs to change its fortunes, the news is generally going to be about a foreign conflict that most people here don’t seem particularly interested in. Even if it goes well, there’s not much upside. And if it goes poorly, it just adds to the narrative that the President isn’t bringing back the competency and normalcy he promised.
I’m also growing impatient on a Supreme Court nomination. There’s no way it creeps into State of the Union week, is there?
Buck: Tough call on SCOTUS. You could see wanting to roll out a nominee Friday to take attention away from Ukraine. But, man, that would sure seem like you’re not super-focused on the crisis over there at a critical moment.
Mollineau: It’s only Wednesday. There’s still a lot of this week left, so we will see, but it could be beneficial to wait until the Senate is back for amplification purposes. Not that I expect for Democrats to be off-message, but having them all in one place is helpful.
Buck: Are Democrats excited about this? I’ve never gotten the sense your nominees get people’s juices flowing like it does for Rs.
Mollineau: This pick and the process should be pro forma; replacing Breyer with a like-minded liberal. However, should Republicans decide to come for a Black female nominee, business picks up dramatically on our side.
Buck: Seems like you’d be up for that!
So a ground war in Europe is happening and D.C. can’t seem to settle on a response. The color of the jersey you’re wearing seems to dictate whether the Administration’s response is sufficient or not. It feels a long way from the days after 9/11.
Mollineau: Unsurprisingly, I think the partisan nature of some—not all—Republicans’ reaction to Ukraine is unfair and quite ridiculous. Biden sanctioning Russia prior to yesterday’s attack wasn’t going to deter Putin’s invasion.
What will you be watching next week? Obviously looking for a Supreme Court nominee—unless we get one tomorrow as CNN is reading the tea leaves this late Thursday—and a State of the Union. But what else is keeping you up at night?
Mollineau: I’m looking forward to the SOTU, although not expecting any moonshot aspirations that will change the trajectory of what Congress focuses on this year. Also, March 4’s job numbers should provide another opportunity for the Administration to demonstrate a rebounding economy.
Buck: This has been one of the least anticipated State of the Unions in decades, and I’m not sure Ukraine entirely changes that. But at least it gives him a chance to demonstrate the kind of competent leadership people had hoped to get from him. Of course, that will require him to hold together the Western alliance over the weekend and hope that Ukraine doesn’t fall. Otherwise, this should be the moment to turn the page entirely from the pandemic and declare the country back, but I just don’t get the sense Democrats in the White House have the nerve to say that.
Gentlemen, thanks for your time. It’s now Friday afternoon and Ukraine seems to be as volatile as ever. But, I will note: Brendan, the Supreme Court story seems to have landed in your old stomping ground, as the Supreme Court nominee is a relative by marriage to your former boss, Paul Ryan. I will leave your explanation of the Ryan connection to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as our final word: “KBJ is Paul’s wife’s sister’s husband’s brother’s wife.” Bless you, D.C.
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