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News brief: Biden news conference, Ukraine-Russia tensions, Tonga aid

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden took questions for nearly two hours at a news conference yesterday.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

He talked about his stalled domestic agenda, a standoff with Russia over Ukraine and his leadership style.

MARTINEZ: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was one of the reporters in the room asking the questions. She's in our room now. Mara, President Biden was inaugurated a year ago today, and it's been many months since he has held a formal news conference. What did he set out to do, and did he accomplish it?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, he came to the news conference in need of a reset. His approval ratings are low. Big pieces of his domestic agenda are stalled in Congress. And he was asked about that, and he mentioned three things that he wants to do differently in his second year in office. He said, one, he wants to get out of this place more often. He wants to take the show on the road and talk to ordinary Americans. That kind of sounds like, I need to communicate better, which is a standard thing that president say when they're in trouble. But in this case, Democrats say that is part of the problem - people don't know what he's trying to pass.

No. 2 - he said he's going to bring outside voices into the White House, fresh perspectives. And No. 3 - he said he's going to get more deeply involved in the upcoming midterms. And he also talked about his leadership style. You know, he was a senator for more than three decades, and his style has, in many ways, been similar to that of a Senate leader. Here's what he said.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: One of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me, speaking of polling, is the public doesn't want me to be the president senator. They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.

LIASSON: He went on to say, if I'd made a mistake, it's that I'm used to negotiating; I've been relatively successful at that in the Senate and even as vice president, negotiating with senators. But he said, I think the role as president is a different role. And this really echoes what Democrats are saying. They want him to be more aggressive, more proactive, more of an executive and less of a kind of deferential one-among-equals with senators.

MARTINEZ: Now let's talk about some of those senators that he's had issues with, one of them over voting rights - or a few of them over voting rights. That was put to bed last night. Tell us what happened.

LIASSON: That's right. The outcome was pretty much preordained. The Senate failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to end debate on the voting rights bill because Republicans filibustered the measure. Then Senate Majority Leader Schumer moved to try to change the filibuster rules just for the voting rights measure so that a simple majority could pass it. That, too, fell short because, of course, two Democrats, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both opposed changing the rules. Biden did say he thought that there could be room for reform on another voting rights issue, the Electoral Count Act, something that some Republicans have expressed openness to, that would basically clarify the vice president's role in the counting of the electoral votes to prevent another January 6. Whereas, you remember, Trump tried to get Vice President Pence...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...To somehow reject the slates of electors.

MARTINEZ: Now, Biden also fell short on getting his domestic spending bill, the Build Back Better Act, over the finish line. What did he have to say about that?

LIASSON: Well, this is another place where opposition from his own Democrats, in particular Joe Manchin, has stymied the president. But yesterday he spoke about breaking up the Build Back Better Act into pieces.

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BIDEN: I'm confident we can get pieces, big chunks, of the Build Back Better law signed into law.

LIASSON: So translation - kind of whatever Manchin wants, we'll try to pass that. But Biden made it clear that even though he thought he could get free preschool and the climate provisions, he probably couldn't get two really big things he really wanted - child tax credit and free community college.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks a lot.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

MARTINEZ: At yesterday's press conference, President Biden said he thought it more likely than not that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would, as Biden put it, move in on Ukraine.

ELLIOTT: Biden also spoke about the possibility of a, quote, "minor incursion," as opposed to a full invasion, all of which required some further explanation from the White House after he finished. Biden is clear about one thing, however - he will not send U.S. forces into Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: For more on this, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, how did the White House clarify the president's remarks?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, Biden's remarks did create some confusion, so the White House swiftly put out a statement saying, quote, "if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe and united response."

MARTINEZ: All right, so let's break this down. What kind of military assistance is the U.S. currently providing to Ukraine?

MYRE: The U.S. has been providing military aid since Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine. This has been a lot of small arms and ammunition and, most prominently, these Javelin anti-tank weapons. All this aid runs at a little over $400 million a year. Britain is sending anti-tank weapons. Turkey has sold armed drones. Now, all of this would help Ukraine defend against Russian tanks and other armored vehicles so they could harass or slow down the Russians, but it's not nearly enough to be decisive if Russia does indeed send the hundred thousand troops it currently has near the border.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, I heard the words tanks and drones but not troops, as far as the U.S. or NATO sending any. So has any country offered to send forces to help Ukraine?

MYRE: No. And I spoke about this with Steven Pifer. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who's now at Stanford. And he said it's very important that the U.S. be crystal clear on this point.

STEVEN PIFER: You would not see American or NATO forces on the ground fighting the Russians on Ukraine's behalf. I don't want the Ukrainian government to make a decision based on a miscalculation of how much help they can get from the West.

MYRE: So President Biden has specifically ruled out U.S. troops. Now, the U.S. does have small contingents that rotate through Ukraine to train the military, so right now there's more than a hundred members of the Florida National Guard, a unit known as Task Force Gator, they're currently in Western Ukraine, but they're there to train, not to fight.

MARTINEZ: So if it's just Ukraine by itself against Russia, could they withstand it?

MYRE: Probably not. I mean, the general view is that if Russia sends in a large force, it could probably take what it wants. But what would Russia want? Maybe Putin just wants a tighter grip on the eastern part of the country near Russia's border to sort of create a buffer zone there. Maybe he wants to go all the way to the capital, Kyiv, to install a Russia-friendly government. Steven Pifer says he doesn't know what Putin will do, but he says the Russian leader does fear a Ukraine that's integrated with the West.

PIFER: If you have a Ukraine moving towards the West that fully consolidates its democracy and then gets its economic reforms really in place so the economy begins to perform in the way it should, that's a nightmare for the Kremlin.

MYRE: So Ukraine has a long way to go before it becomes that kind of country, but Putin believes that Ukraine should be aligned with Russia and not with the West.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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MARTINEZ: The first international shipment of humanitarian aid has arrived in the Pacific nation of Tonga.

ELLIOTT: A military plane from New Zealand arrived five days after an underwater volcanic eruption killed three people and left behind extensive tsunami damage and a blanket of fallen ash.

MARTINEZ: Here to tell us more about the international relief effort is reporter Ashley Westerman, who joins us from Manila. Ashley, why did it take so long for the aid to arrive?

ASHLEY WESTERMAN: Well, the eruption actually damaged an underwater fiber optic cable, and it knocked out the internet and phone lines across Tonga, and that made communicating with officials nearly impossible. The blackout also made it difficult to assess the damage and really know what Tonga needed. But, A, a New Zealand air force plane was only able to land on Tonga's largest island, Tongatapu, after the Tongan military cleared the runway there of volcanic ash by hand.

MARTINEZ: Wow.

WESTERMAN: Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour, the commander of Joint Forces New Zealand, told the press back in Wellington that the plane was carrying relief supplies, such as food, water generators and personal hygiene kits.

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JIM GILMOUR: And that is now being unloaded as we speak. No contact. COVID protocols are being adhered to rigorously. And that aircraft will return to New Zealand tonight.

MARTINEZ: Also, New Zealand isn't staying to help out?

WESTERMAN: No, they're not because, basically, the Tongan government has kept their COVID restrictions in place.

MARTINEZ: Oh, wow.

WESTERMAN: And that means no outside visitors. Tonga has only recorded one COVID-19 case, and officials there want to keep it that way. Here's Jonathan Pryke with the Lowy Institute in Sydney. He told me about how Tonga has managed to use its remoteness in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to its advantage during the pandemic.

JONATHAN PRYKE: Tonga was able to quickly put the barriers up between itself and the outside world to implement quarantine systems, to stop international travel and to closely monitor freight coming in and out of the country. So, you know, they acted swiftly, and I think that's - a lot of that's been driven by the history of Tonga's experience with the outside world and particularly Westerners and bringing disease to the country.

WESTERMAN: And even though Tonga has a pretty high vaccination rate, letting international aid workers in could put their population at risk, and officials are just not willing to do that. But this means that aid groups are going to have to work with Tonga remotely, and that's not easy. But the groups I've spoken with say they'll do whatever it takes to help out.

MARTINEZ: All right, so let's talk about what Tonga needs right now. What are their priorities as they begin to clean up?

WESTERMAN: So the experts I've spoken with say the main concern right now is the volcanic ash that is blanketing everything. If left for too long, it could contaminate the drinking water, and officials in Tonga say that's already started to happen. It can also harm crops and even livestock. Volcanologist Shane Cronin at The University of Auckland says the ash itself isn't so dangerous, but what happens later can be.

SHANE CRONIN: The ash is coated with mineral salts, and they're mainly sulfur and chlorine and sometimes fluorine. And what happens when water gets on to the ash is it dissolves up these salts but then creates acid.

WESTERMAN: And these acids, he says, make the water taste bad and can harm plants. Meanwhile, food security is also an issue. There's been reports of widespread damage to crops, and scientists say the eruption likely killed pretty much any marine life nearby. And then finally, fixing that broken underwater fiber optic cable, but that could take weeks.

MARTINEZ: Reporter Ashley Westerman in Manila. Thank you very much.

WESTERMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.