Don’t Discount the Political Power of a Sinking Russian War Ship

7 minute read

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.

Week 65 of the Biden presidency came to a close with a now-too-familiar split screen. On one side, the foreign crises around the world seemed subsumed by the deepening troubles in Ukraine, as an ICBM test in Russia rightfully spooks the West. On the other, the persistent infighting here in Washington continues to dog President Joe Biden and his predecessor.

To make sense of the week, The D.C. Brief checked in with two veterans of presidential campaigns and the Senate. On the left, Bryan DeAngelis rose through the ranks of the House and Senate, serving as Sen. Chris Dodd’s chief spokesman as he rewrote the rules of Wall Street after the 2008 financial collapse. DeAngelis also worked on the presidential campaigns of Dodd and Hillary Clinton.

On the right, Jeff Sadosky has helped boost the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, Fred Thompson, John McCain, and Marco Rubio. He’s been a spokesman for Sens. Mike DeWine and Rob Portman.

Both are now partners at their consulting firms. This conversation has been lightly edited.

Elliott: It looks like Mariupol has fallen, even if there are still Ukrainians there. Does this finally give the U.S. military permission for a very limited extraction effort? Or is the political price too steep to risk it?

Sadosky: I’d have to imagine Biden is on a very short leash here despite the growing evidence of atrocities. Anything they do will have to be driven by the Europeans and/or Congress, and Capitol Hill is sending a pretty clear message to the White House at this point regarding their unwillingness to see boots on the ground.

DeAngelis: I agree any decision to commit U.S. troops will be driven by Congress and in coordination with our European allies. I don’t think Biden is letting his own politics stand in the way, as much as he appreciates the importance of consensus behind the decision and that the U.S. can’t act alone.

Elliott: Elsewhere, though, it seems Ukrainians are still weathering this. You both know comms: sinking the Moskva is better than anything you can say in a speech. You’ve both worked in presidential campaigns. What’s the next step for both Zelensky and Washington?

Sadosky: In an effort like the Ukrainians are undertaking, morale and attitude can have a huge impact on the outcome, nearly as much as resources and strategy. And it is hard to find a better rallying cry for Zelensky than the sinking of the Moskva, as it reminds the Ukrainians they’re up for the task. For Biden, it doesn’t really have much impact given the political constraints he’s under when you look at it from a shorter-term view, but from a more macro level, this can further weaken Putin internally, and Washington can use that to provide leverage in an ongoing geopolitical debate and battle.

DeAngelis: Morale, attitude, and I will add confidence. Zelensky has been an inspirational leader and effective communicator, both to the Ukrainian people and the global community. Sinking the Moskva is a huge momentum boost as Zelensky continues to push for more support and resources from allies. Politically, it certainly helps Biden as he heads back to Congress to ask for more funding for Ukraine.

Elliott: And here at home, it sure looks like the Biden Administration is rushing to get aid to Ukraine and Ukrainians into the United States. Will he get any credit for any of it? Should he?

DeAngelis: He absolutely should, and he will. This is Biden as advertised. I think most Americans, from both parties, expected strong leadership on foreign policy issues. The issue isn’t whether he will get credit, but more if voters will focus on foreign policy issues come election time.

Sadosky: The Biden White House sees the Russia-Ukraine fight offering significantly more downside risk to them than opportunity for credit, and therefore has been very careful to let the Europeans and the Hill lead them where the White House might know it needs to get to. The only way Russia becomes more important in the upcoming election than inflation, spending, crime, and COVID is if something goes dramatically wrong. Couple that with the handling of Kabul evacuation and it is hard to see them wanting to be leading the charge. While the Europeans and some congressional Dems might appreciate and understand that and give them credit for deftly limiting risk, it’s hard to see American voters being moved by that.

DeAngelis: I don’t know if you were hoping for more of a debate, Phil, but I actually agree with a lot of what Jeff said.

Elliott: If professionals agree, that’s not the worst thing in the world. It shows an honest answer—or mutual misunderstanding.

I am wondering: with Donald Trump Jr. set to meet with the Jan. 6 committee, what are the odds he’s still welcomed to Bedminster for the July 4 holiday? His texts are incredibly revealing, and do not exactly share the President’s views about the failed riot. We watched today as Kevin McCarthy tried to undo the Jonathan Martin/Alex Burns reporting that he had planned to tell Trump to resign. Do either of them find a way back to Trump’s graces?

Sadosky: Considering Dad’s favorite and her husband have both already sat down with the Jan. 6th committee, I’d imagine Don Jr. will be safe. But yes, it is pretty damning when your own son and namesake is calling you out for failing to lead during a crisis.

DeAngelis: Privately, Junior probably is in the dog house. I don’t think Trump will ever acknowledge it publicly out of fear that it makes him and the family look weak. McCarthy will pander and Trump will take advantage of him, but he’s going to have a long road back into Trump’s good graces.

Elliott: Well one more: does any of it matter? If you’re a member of the MAGA movement—or a candidate chasing it—can you just brush this off as fake news and actually win votes? That’s my sense, but I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Sadosky: Yes, you can. But it’s votes we already have. So individual candidates might be helped within infra-party squabbles, but the party as a whole and candidates running in tight general elections lose when the focus is here rather than on a debate with Biden on the best path forward.

DeAngelis: Unfortunately, I think MAGA candidates will brush this off as fake news, as McCarthy tried to do. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays in GOP primaries. Jeff’s right, though, the time they spend talking about Trump and Jan. 6th distracts them from their main issues and only helps their Dem opponents.

Elliott: Some late developments: Jonathan and Alex have the audio of the McCarthy call, Rachel Maddow broadcast it, and the verbatim is brutal but accurate to the original reporting.

Sadosky: Watching this play out, I’m struck by the fact that Trump’s initial reaction is important, which seems to bode well for McCarthy, but not by any means final. And if some within Trumpworld or his closest allies in Congress use this as a chance to attack McCarthy for whatever reason, Trump’s opinion and McCarthy’s standing can still change.

Elliott: Gentlemen, this has been a fantastic chat. Let’s do it in person soon.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at