Meet the Press

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, a change at the Supreme Court.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

This is sort of a bittersweet day for me.

CHUCK TODD:

The announced retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer –

JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER:

People have come to accept this Constitution. And they’ve come to accept the importance of the rule of law.

CHUCK TODD:

– gives President Biden a chance to make a historic appointment.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court.

CHUCK TODD:

And to reignite enthusiasm among disappointed core Democratic voters. Biden has the votes. So, will Republicans still try to fight this nomination?

SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN:

They’re trying to use this to distract from what is their failed agenda.

CHUCK TODD:

Plus: Russia moves more troops to Ukraine’s border.

GEN. MARK MILLEY:

I think you’d have to go back quite a while into the Cold War days to see something of this magnitude.

CHUCK TODD:

Pentagon officials say Russia now has enough troops to move far into Ukraine, sparking fears of a much wider conflict. My guests this morning: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Rob Portman. Also, Covid, despite spikes in some states –

DR. KEN SILVERSTEIN:

Things are sort of at unprecedented levels.

CHUCK TODD:

– cases are now heading down in all regions of the country, even as a new Omicron variant emerges.

DR. ASHISH JHA:

I think another major wave is really unlikely out of this subvariant.

CHUCK TODD:

I’ll talk to two governors, Democrat Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Republican Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, about the fight against Covid and how they’re dealing with America’s political divide. Joining me for insight and analysis are: NBC News White House Correspondent Carol Lee, Eugene Scott of The Washington Post, former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill and Stephen Hayes, founder of The Dispatch. Welcome to Sunday. It’s Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, the longest-running show in television history. This is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

CHUCK TODD:

And a good Sunday morning. Just last week we said President Biden was in desperate need of a reset. His poll numbers are falling — in particular among African Americans — and there’s real fear that Democrats’ midterm hopes will be sunk by a lack of enthusiasm among the very voters who put Mr. Biden in office. And then, just like that, Mr. Biden was thrown a lifeline with the news that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer would indeed retire at the end of this term. President Biden vowed to keep his promise during the campaign that he would appoint an African American woman to the first court opening he had. That could help with declining Black support. Supreme Court hearings could also blunt that enthusiasm problem, serving as a reminder to Democrats that elections have consequences and they matter. And getting a Supreme Court nominee confirmed would give Mr. Biden a political win after the disappointments in the last few months over voting rights and Build Back Better. Of course, replacing Breyer with another liberal won’t change the court’s current conservative tilt. But Mr. Biden finally has an open field with a real chance to put some points on the board and at least temporarily change the narrative of his presidency.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

It’s long overdue.

CHUCK TODD:

President Biden – previewing his Supreme Court pick on Thursday, hoping to regain political momentum after a difficult month.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

The person I will nominate will be someone of extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity. And that person will be the first black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court.

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Biden’s approval rating among African Americans has dropped nearly 20 points since April, to just 64%.

KRISTEN WELKER:

Do you think President Biden has done enough for Black women voters?

HELEN BRADLEY:

I really don’t.

CHUCK TODD:

Now he has the chance to show he can keep his campaign promises.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a Black woman on the Supreme Court.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

This is a promise that he made, and a promise that will be kept.

CHUCK TODD:

Among the likely contenders: Ketanji Brown Jackson of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit. She’s a former Breyer law clerk, 51 and has twice been confirmed by this Senate.

JUDGE KETANJI BROWN JACKSON:

I’m not injecting my personal views. I’m evenhandedly applying the law.

CHUCK TODD:

Leondra Kruger, a justice on California’s state Supreme Court. She clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens, she’s 45 and was a deputy in the solicitor general’s office during the Obama administration, arguing a dozen cases before the Supreme Court. And J. Michelle Childs, a federal judge in South Carolina, recently nominated to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit. She’s 55, and close with Jim Clyburn.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

She’s not an Ivy Leaguer, she got a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of South Florida, she’s got a Juris Doctorate from the University of South Carolina, her Masters in Law from Duke University, she’s thoroughly Southern.

CHUCK TODD:

The Supreme Court vote – which now requires a simple majority in the Senate – will give Biden a victory after months featuring party divisions on Senate rules, voting rights and the president’s economic plan, Build Back Better. While some conservatives would like to take an aggressive approach.

SEN. JOSH HAWLEY:

This is a hard woke left administration.

SEN. ROGER WICKER:

The irony is that the Supreme Court is, at the very same time, hearing cases about this sort of affirmative racial discrimination and while adding someone who is the beneficiary of this sort of quota.

CHUCK TODD:

Without the votes to block a nomination, most Senate Republicans are signaling they will stay focused on high prices.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

Rampant inflation

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Incredible inflation

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO:

A 40-year high of inflation in the United States.

CHUCK TODD:

Meanwhile, the White House hopes this vote will fire up disappointed progressives –

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO CORTEZ:

When you don’t change people’s lives, people get upset.

CHUCK TODD:

– and remind Democrats of the Supreme Court fights to come – including the likelihood that the court will limit or eliminate protections for abortion rights.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL:

This is going to be a massive issue at the ballot boxes. There’s just no question about it. There’s going to be rage.

CHUCK TODD:

But with inflation a drag on at-risk Democrats, the question is how much even a Supreme Court appointment can break through.

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN:

Where’s the war room on the cost of living?

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is the number two Senate Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin of Illinois. Senator Durbin, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

You’ll be overseeing this confirmation process for whoever the president ends up selecting. And before we get into some specific names, I want to get into a couple of numbers here. Amy Coney Barrett, 27 days from nomination to confirmation. Sonia Sotomayor, 66 days from nomination to confirmation. I know you decried the speed of what happened with Amy Coney Barrett. And there are a lot of things that you want to decry on that. What should we expect timeline-wise, closer to Sonia Sotomayor, or closer to Amy Coney Barrett?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, a great deal depends on the nominee. If the person has been before the committee seeking approval for a circuit court, then the committee knows quite a bit about that person. And that can be taken into consideration. If there are no new developments for someone who’s been before the committee in the previous year or two, it makes a real difference. I could just say this: It’s going to be fair. It’s going to be deliberate. And we’re going to be timely about it too. This is a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. We should take it seriously.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, I am obviously going to try to pin you down one more time on timing. Easter recess, mid-April. Is that a fair target at this point to get it done before you guys take off? Before, or do you think probably just after?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, by the Amy Coney Barrett test, yes it is. And so mostly we’ll see. We’ll see what develops. And a great deal, maybe all of it, depends on the nominee and the background of the nominee.

CHUCK TODD:

You said something just – interesting to me just now. You said, “It depends if they’ve been before a committee before.” Ketanji Brown Jackson, obviously on the circuit – on the D.C. Circuit. She has been before this committee, this Senate, has received 53 votes. Based on what you have – what you know about her, do you think she should be the frontrunner for this post?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

I sure don’t want to speculate on that. The White House made it clear when they told me about the Breyer vacancy that they had not – the president had not made the decision. And I want to respect that. I think suggesting there’s a frontrunner or this person is now moving ahead, it’s unfair to all the nominees. This is in the hands of the president, as it should be.

CHUCK TODD:

What kind of conversations have you had with the ranking member, Lindsey Graham, about what kind of process this was going to be? Or are relations just sort of, “Eh, it’s just not how it works anymore”?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, I would say that the ranking member is now the senator from Iowa.

CHUCK TODD:

Oh, sorry. My apologies there, that’s right.

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

And I called him – I called him the next day. We had a brief conversation about it. And I have a good working relationship with Senator Grassley. We really trust one another. I like him and I hope he likes me as much. And I think we’re going to do our best to serve our country in this capacity. He’s been through it. I’ve been through it for seven of the current Supreme Court justices. I would suggest he might even be in for a longer term, and has really faced them all. So we do have experience on the subject.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, it’s interesting here. Clarence Thomas is about to become the only member of the current Supreme Court who was nominated by a president of one party and confirmed by a Senate controlled by the other party. Do you think we’ll see that again in our lifetime?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, and think back about Stephen Breyer. Here’s a man who worked as the chief assistant to Ted Kennedy. And when his vote came up in the Senate, he was approved 87 to nine. It’s an indication of the good, old days when there was much more bipartisanship. But my goal is to make sure that we have a deliberate, timely hearing, but also to reach out to the Republican side and see if they can join us in making it a bipartisan nomination. I think that speaks well of the Court and it speaks well of the Senate if we can achieve it.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to ask about one other aspect to the Supreme Court nominees that has become sort of now the norm. It’s something Jonathan Chait wrote about in New York Magazine because it’s always about age now. “Neither party would choose a nominee over the age of 60, even though the most accomplished judges, by definition, have been honing their craft for a long time. The absurd actuarial logic of lifetime appointments incentivizes both parties to find the youngest possible nominee who can plausibly be sold to the public as having cleared the qualification bar.” It is sort of a conundrum here that we are –we do rush these folks onto the judiciary, if we think, you know, both parties do it, if we think they have the qualifications to get on the Supreme Court. Are we choosing age too quickly these days?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

It’s a factor, I’m not going to mislead you, in the selection of judges at every level. I have a lot of my friends here in Chicago who are attorneys in their sixties who would like to cap off their career by being a federal judge. It doesn’t really make sense, you know, when you consider how little time they’re likely to serve before they reach senior status or leave completely. We do look for younger candidates, younger by Supreme Court and federal court standards. But it’s done on both sides. I don’t think there’s any surprise that both Republicans and Democrats would like some longevity in the service.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to turn to the issue of Ukraine. Both you and my other Republican guest are chair of the Ukrainian Senate Caucus, if you will. Senators Portman and yourself both have large Ukrainian populations in your states. And I’m curious what you thought of what President Zelenskyy said on Friday. He seemed to wonder aloud why Russia hasn’t been punished yet. You know, that – he’s a little concerned that we are waiting – that it looks like we are waiting until after he encroaches on the border of Ukraine, not before. What would you say to him?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, I would just say to President Zelenskyy, we need to accept one basic premise. Any decision about the future of Ukraine will be made by Ukraine. It won’t be made in Moscow or in Washington, in the European Union or Belarus. It’s their future and their fate and their decision as far as that is concerned. I have listened closely to what President Zelenskyy has said. And he reminds us time and again that there could be a way out of this, short of military action. And I hope there is, but it’s his decision to make. If he decides that the future membership, if there’s to be one in NATO for Ukraine, and the question of Russian occupation of Ukraine are two things to put on the table, I think we may move toward a solution to this. And I hope we do soon.

CHUCK TODD:

That’s interesting. You think he may accept some limitations on his relationship with NATO?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

I don’t want to presume a thing. Nothing. It’s his decision entirely. But as I listen to the diplomacy back and forth, it seems to me that the Russians want to try to delay any Ukraine involvement in NATO. And Ukraine, of course, wants the Russians out. I’m not talking just about the troops at the border, but those that invaded their country seven or eight years ago. And currently the Little Green Men, or however they characterize them, continue the warfare and killing.

CHUCK TODD:

That’s a pretty optimistic note you’re sounding here. You really think this is going – we’re going to have a diplomatic exit here?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, we’d better be prepared for the worst. I think the president is stiffening our resolve to face that if we have to, with serious sanctions and our NATO forces doing everything they can to protect the Baltics and Poland and other countries. But, you know, I do like the fact that the diplomacy continues. And that to me is an encouraging sign.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat from Illinois, the number two in the Senate, head of the Judiciary Committee. We’ll be seeing a lot of you as these hearings get started. Thanks for coming on and sharing your perspective with us, sir.

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, Senator Portman, welcome back to Meet The Press.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Hi, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

And as I noted, you and — you and Senator Durbin had the Senate Ukrainian Caucus, and you were recently in country, met with President Zelenskyy, and I kind of want to pick up there, on the conversation I just stopped with, with Senator Durbin. Do you share this sense that Zelenskyy – that Ukraine itself might be willing to limit its interest in NATO as a deescalation tool with the Russians? Is that a viable diplomatic solution here?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Well, look, it’s up to NATO and up to Ukraine. NATO has an open door policy, and we have to continue to defend that, so I don’t – I don’t think that’s something that we’re going to decide. I will say two things: one, Dick Durbin and I are co-chairs of this caucus, and we have been unified as Republicans and Democrats in standing up to what Russia has done, both what they did with regards to Crimea seven/eight years ago, and the Donbas region. In other words they’ve already invaded Ukraine twice, and certainly now, while Ukraine is massing this unwarranted and very intimidating force all along the borders, not just the eastern border now, but the northern border and elsewhere, so we are together. Second: we’re looking at putting together a strong package, which I hope we can pass next week, which would include sanctions, which would include more military assistance, which would include helping them to fight back against the cyber attacks that the Russians continue to use against Ukraine, and also to help on the disinformation campaign that Russia’s actively involved in to try to destabilize the Zelenskyy government. So this right now, Chuck in Ukraine is where the cause of freedom is being waged in our generation, and we need to stand up and be unified with our allies, and as Democrats and Republicans.

CHUCK TODD:

I wanted to see if you could explain maybe what Zelenskyy is saying publicly, and perhaps what he’s saying privately. During his press conference on Friday he was a bit critical of some Western leaders including President Biden feeling as if they’re talking up war too much. Here’s what he said, it’s a bit of the translation: “These signals were sent by respected leaders of their respective countries, sometimes they’re not even using diplomatic language. They think tomorrow is the war, this means panic in the market, panic in the financial sector.” Obviously he’s concerned about his economy. At the same time, he was asking you, “We need more weapons,” he wishes our sanctions would be imposed before Russia invaded. Is he saying one thing behind the scenes, and saying one thing for public consumption?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Well, look, he’s got a slightly different constituency than President Biden. President Biden’s job is to mobilize our allies, mobilize America to be prepared for the possibility that Vladimir Putin will make a huge mistake, and put together consequences. So it’ll be devastating to try to avoid that from happening. President Zelenskyy obviously is trying to maintain his economic growth in his country, which by the way is pretty strong right now, and keep the country from panicking, while having them be prepared. But we’re together, that’s what’s important. As to Russia, and what Russia’s doing, the Ukrainians and the Americans are absolutely together. But so are so many other allies, really the entire free world. It’s been very impressive as I look at what Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Baltics, and Finland, and Denmark, and, you know, countries like Canada and the U.K. have done. I mean, our alliance is incredibly strong. One thing Vladimir Putin has done successfully is he has strengthened the transatlantic alliance and its countries around the world who are looking at this and saying, “We cannot let this stand, we cannot let this happen.”

For the first time in nearly 80 years since World War II, we could have a major conflict with – and a very bloody conflict in Europe unless we stand up together and push back, and so far so good. We’re doing that. My hope is that Vladimir Putin will see that, and realize that the consequences will be devastating for him. By the way, Chuck, the other thing that was interesting in being there is that the commitment and the patriotism of the Ukrainians.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

You know, I’ve been at the line of contact. I was there in 2014 after this Revolution of Dignity, and Ukrainians feel a very strong sense of nationalism, and they’re going to fight.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator, you’re speaking very optimistically about the Western alliance. Germany hasn’t exactly been, let’s say, as aggressive as perhaps the rest of the Western alliance would be, whether it’s on shipping weapons or on dealing with this Nord Stream Pipeline. Are you confident that if Russia invades Germany will be on board, cutting off the Nord Stream Pipeline?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Well, apparently they’re saying that privately. They should say it publicly. I’m also, as you know, a little disappointed in their inability to approve arms sales. If something was made in Germany, in this case in East Germany, they made howitzers that are now with the Estonians. The Estonians want to provide it to Ukraine, Ukraine wants these howitzers which are older equipment, but important for them, and these are artillery weapons that the Ukrainians need badly, and yet Germany is not approving it. That makes no sense to me, and I’ve made that very clear in conversations with the Germans and others. So my hope is that Germany will step forward even more, but they’re with us. They’re saying that they would cut off Nord Stream II Pipeline should there be an invasion of any type, and I certainly hope that’s true.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to ask about Republican unity on this issue. I got to play you a clip here from Tucker Carlson which has been leading more and more Republicans – rank-and-file Republicans to question what we’re doing with Russia and Ukraine. Here’s what he said.

[BEGIN TAPE]

TUCKER CARLSON:

At this point: NATO exists primarily to torment Vladimir Putin, who whatever his many faults, has no intention of invading Western Europe. Vladimir Putin does not want Belgium, he just wants to keep his western border secure.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

I’m sure you love being asked about a cable TV news host, but it has led quite a bit of rank-and-file Americans to ask this question. I mean, are you worried that there is a movement in the Republican Party that has become pro-Putin?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Well, I wouldn’t call it a movement, but I think we’ve got to be sure we’re understanding what’s going on here. The Ukrainians are not asking for American troops to come to Ukraine, and I’ve gotten a number of phone calls from some of these cable news shows saying, you know, “We’ve got to keep our troops out of there.” They’re not asking for our troops, nor is anybody talking about that. We are talking about strengthening the countries around the region who are looking for more help, NATO countries like the Baltics, like Poland. Second, again, this is about the fight for freedom. And this is a country that has decided that they want to be like us, they want to be a democracy. They want to respect the rule of law, they want to have a free enterprise system that’s strong and vibrant. This has all happened in the last eight years, and they have turned to the EU, and turned to the United States, and said, “We want to be part of the West.” And by the way, every year, Chuck, it’s become more and more evident that that’s where the people of Ukraine are. Which is, I think, one reason why Vladimir Putin is moving now because —

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

– he sees it falling away toward the West. America always stands for freedom. You know, we are the country that believes that people’s free will ought to be respected, that sovereignty matters, that the dignity of the Ukrainian people matters, and this is what they want. So their territorial integrity is at risk right now, and it’s appropriate that the free world stand by them.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Portman, a Republican from Ohio who happens to be retiring, I was going to make you do your Ickey Shuffle today, I have Claire McCaskill on the panel, she has her Chiefs mask –

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Yeah –

CHUCK TODD:

– so I’ll tell her to do an Ickey Shuffle if you guys pull the upset, how’s that?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

I’ve got my Bengals tie on today, and I —

CHUCK TODD:

All right.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

– did wear a Bengals mask down in Nashville last weekend, but —

CHUCK TODD:

We shall see.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Who dey! So, go Bengals.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Senator Portman, thanks for coming on sharing your perspective —

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

– with us.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Take care.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, will President Biden’s chance to replace Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court give him the political lift he and his party so desperately need?

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here. As I mentioned, Chiefs fan and former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, you got to work on that Ickey Shuffle. NBC News —

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

– White House correspondent Carol Lee; Eugene Scott of The Washington Post; and Stephen Hayes founder of The Dispatch and a new member of the NBC News family. Your Peacock cufflinks are in the mail, I promise.

STEPHEN HAYES:

Very good.

CHUCK TODD:

Carol Lee, we’ve said this was a lifeline politically for the president. Did you notice a chance in the White House posture this week?

CAROL LEE:

Absolutely. I mean, Chuck, they see this as a reset, a moment to reset. If you think about just the timing of it, it comes a week after those divisions over the voting rights legislation, and so when you talk to White House officials, they cast this as an opportunity to rally the party, to kind of take a breath, remind everybody what their goals are, and to come together and be unified. And they see two moments where this could be particularly energizing. Obviously right now when they have this opportunity, and the president’s going to go through the process of picking someone, and then the moment when they have a name, and somebody that the party can really rally behind. Now, in terms of politically going forward, they don’t see this as, you know, something —

CHUCK TODD:

Sure.

CAROL LEE:

– that’s going to define the midterms, it’ll be a line or two in a speech. But for now, it allows them to take a breath, talk about – quietly about how they figure out a path forward on some of the president’s legislative agendas, while also putting forward a unified front after having all these divisions.

CHUCK TODD:

Eugene, it’s a promise made, and he wants to make it a promise kept. I want to put up these statistics just so people understand why I think so many people believe it’s about time for an African American woman on the high court. There are nearly 1,400 federal judges, just 51 one of them right now are African American women, right? That’s less than 4% of everybody, so it’s an underrepresented group, as it is in the federal judiciary, the importance of this to African Americans, getting this representation on the court.

EUGENE SCOTT:

It’s significant. As you noted, this is an area in the judiciary that Black women have not seen someone who looks like them, but to your notes earlier, it’s also important just for people who have a high view of diversity, and believe that representation matters. And so many of these constituents were key players in helping Biden get to the White House, so not just Black voters, but women, other people of color, progressive liberals, just people who understand that the benches have not looked like the country that so many people find themselves seeing, and being represented, for and in front of these benches.

CHUCK TODD:

Claire, you’ve been in these hearings. You’ve been a star of these hearings at times, depending on people’s point of view. What should we expect? This one going to be drama-free?

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

If I had to guess or die here, I would think Mitch McConnell is not going to want to draw this out. Sometimes the drama around the nomination motivates bases, I certainly felt that in 2018.

CHUCK TODD:

A reverse, right? Yeah.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

A reverse.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

So I think, you know, it’s a football day, I’ll give you the over and under, it’s about 53 votes for the nominee in the Senate. Maybe 54 if he goes with a non —

CHUCK TODD:

Perhaps the Rob Portmans or two may get in there, right.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

Exactly.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, yeah.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

And I think Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski, and potentially Lindsey, has been a fairly down the middle voter on–

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

– Biden nominees. And I do think it’s really important to remember, when I was a young attorney in the courtrooms of Kansas City, the only woman I’d seen in a black robe was in the church choir. So we have made progress in a lot of ways, but not ever have we had a Black woman on the Supreme Court, and I am sick and tired of the Republicans going, “Nah, nah, nah.” Because Ronald Reagan said, “I’m putting a woman on the court,” and they didn’t say, “boo.”

STEPHEN HAYES:

Donald Trump said it last time he was in this.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, I was just going to say it feels like what Roger Wicker did, and maybe he didn’t, I don’t know if he knows he intended – did he actually make it even harder now for Republicans to criticize this pick? Because he went in a direction – we don’t even know the pick yet.

STEPHEN HAYES:

Well, right. I think that’s the key point. You need to know who the pick is, before we even get to predicting votes, it depends who the pick is, and what her credentials are. We now know that he’s going to pick a Black woman, we need to know what her credentials are, what she’s done, what she’s doing.

CHUCK TODD:

The top three are pretty well credentialed when you look at these —

STEPHEN HAYES:

I would say very well qualified.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. Let me put them up here. Ketanji Brown Jackson. Leondra Kruger’s on the California Supreme Court. Michelle Childs is about to be on the D.C. circuit, although they’re delaying her since she’s up for this. I mean, these resumes look like every other Supreme Court resume.

STEPHEN HAYES:

Sure. And there’s a list beyond this —

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HAYES:

– that includes a lot of very well-qualified candidates. I don’t think there’s a problem with Republicans pointing out that Joe Biden made a political argument when he said iIn the context of a campaign after having lost in Iowa and New Hampshire, that he was going to pick a Black woman. It helped him. It was a political pronouncement. Republicans are fine making that point. I think they’d be wise to wait to look at the actual credentials, and the arguments of the women who are nominated.

CAROL LEE:

Well, and the White House was ready for this. I mean, they are prepared for the Republicans to lean in this direction. And they came out —

CHUCK TODD:

I almost think – they seemed like they were anxious —

CAROL LEE:

– with a statement —

CHUCK TODD:

I hate to say it that way but, like —

CAROL LEE:

They were almost eager.

CHUCK TODD:

They want to play the politics.

CAROL LEE:

I mean, there are —

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

CAROL LEE:

– people close to the president, political advisors, who do think if the Republicans want to pick this fight it’s one they really want to have. Talk about energizing, in their view.

CHUCK TODD:

You’re smiling on this.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

Yeah, I think this is going to be a strong moment for the Biden presidency. I think if anybody doesn’t understand how important Black women are to the Democratic Party, they’re not paying attention.

CHUCK TODD:

Right. Eugene, what does this do, does this give a Kyrsten Sinema and a Joe Manchin the chance to sort of repair their relationship with the Democratic base?

EUGENE SCOTT:

It certainly does, and that’s something that could very well happen, especially with Manchin who we remember was very critical of the Republicans last time when Amy Coney Barrett was moved forward very close to the presidential election. And they have a track record of supporting the president when it comes to moving forward his judge picks, so it would be consistent of them to do that through this situation.

CHUCK TODD:

And, Carol, on timing, how fast does the White House want to do this?

CAROL LEE:

So that’s what’s been interesting. I thought Senator Durbin’s comments were interesting because he just didn’t really weigh in. What you saw was Senate Majority Leader Schumer come out and say, “This is going to be really fast,” and other Democrats and the White House say, “Wait. That’s not our timeline.We’re going to do a deliberative process. The president wants to consult with a number of senators.” White House officials say that’s his next step to formally do that. They’re going to announce soon an outside sherpa team that’s going to come into the White House to do – and so they want to move methodically. If that’s fast, they’re fine with that, but they want to show that they’re doing a very deliberative and thorough process.

CHUCK TODD:

Claire, would you use this as cover, right now? So that you could do Build Back Better negotiations behind the scenes without everybody ankle-biting?

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

I think there is no reason for this to be put on afterburners in terms of speed, and I think the White House realizes that. I think they need to do this flawlessly, they need to make sure that whoever is selected is vetted thoroughly. They need to count some Republican votes before they announce her. And I think all that will happen, and the timing of it, I think late summer, would be probably perfect.

CHUCK TODD:

Oh, so you would let it drag, drag is the wrong word, let it methodically play out very publicly?

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

I think so. I mean, the only thing that I’m not up on right now is the health of all the members.

CHUCK TODD:

Right. All the – I was just going to say there’s always risks. We don’t know how to talk about it other than it’s called life.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

It’s called life.

CHUCK TODD:

Anyway. All right. When we come back with Covid cases falling, but death still rising, America’s governors are on the front lines of that battle. I’m going to talk to two of them, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Republican Asa Hutchinson, about the fight against Covid, and the growing American political divide. And they’re actually going to be on set together, it used to not be a big deal. It’s a big deal these days, stick with us.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. There’s actually been some welcome good news on Covid recently. The seven-day average of cases has dropped by about a third over the past two weeks, with almost every single state showing a decrease. Deaths though remain distressingly high. But they are the lagging indicator and should also soon come down. The country’s governors have been on the frontlines of this Covid battle, and that battle means they’ve been at the frontlines of our many political divisions. In our recent NBC News poll, 70% of Americans said our differences were likely to grow, compared to just 27% who agreed that, while we have differences, we always seem to come together in tough times. This morning we have the rare pleasure of having a Democrat and a Republican appear together. So joining me now, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey. You guys are here for the National Governors Association, which used to be sort of a powerful entity here. So Governor Hutchinson, let me start with you. In this extraordinarily divisive times, how – what can you guys do to make the NGA actually effective in a bipartisan way? What’s the – how do you do it?

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON:

Well, first of all, I’m glad to be on this show with Governor Murphy. He’s the vice chair, will next year be the chair of the NGA. For 114 years, the governors have been convening in a bipartisan way to work on problems and challenges. And let me assure everyone that there are still plenty of differences. Governor Murphy and I disagree on a lot of issues, and we can fight over those, but there are so many things as governors we could work together on. And this is what’s great, is that we actually gather together as governors. We meet. We discuss. We set aside the things we can’t agree on. But when you’re looking at infrastructure, when you’re looking at computer science, which is my initiative, when you’re looking at the challenges of Covid, we benefit from discussing and working on these things together. And it’s a common voice that we can have with the administration. So it’s been very productive in a bipartisan way. And I think it’s a good example for America.

CHUCK TODD:

Governor Murphy, what is realistic though? You guys have a series of asks. What’s realistic that going to – that can get agreed to?

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

I would echo much of what Asa has said. I actually think the NGA is a very formidable, effective organization. And I think governors have never mattered more. So if you look at the agenda this weekend, reiterate, infrastructure – important across the aisle – computer science education, which the chair has pioneered or led on the past year, Covid response, to pick three, education more broadly. I’m an optimist. I think those numbers go the other way, Chuck. I think, I think we’re going to see more commonality. Again, we’re not going to agree on everything. That’s just never going to happen. But I believe we’re going to actually find more common ground, as opposed to less.

CHUCK TODD:

Let’s talk about preparing for the next wave. And I say it this way because we don’t know how big it is. We don’t know how small it is. But I guess I would like to think we’ve – everybody’s learned some lessons from what happened pre-Omicron. So if we assume we’re going to get hit seasonally now, what do you need in the next five months before your summer – if it is another summer surge like you dealt with – what do you think needs to be done by the federal government to let you have the tools you need to handle your summer surge?

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON:

Well, first of all, we’re delighted to see our cases going down. We just peaked last week. We hope the omicron continues to go down. We believe that it will. And I do believe that we need to move from a pandemic status and mode of operation, to more endemic, where we’re normalizing, taking it very seriously, preparing, but I think we need to move out of the panic mode. I think we need to handle this to make sure that we continue with our normal lives. But the response should be – and there’s two things because we know that there will be additional variants coming down the way. First of all, is to continue to build the infrastructure. So, for my state and other governors, we want to make sure our testing capacity is there. We want to make sure that we have access to the therapeutics, and that’s where the federal government needs to step up. We need to make sure that there’s the quick production. They need to rely upon the states for the distribution. And there are a lot of discussions about that. They need to improve that supply chain. So, let’s take advantage of this going down to be better prepared around the corner.

CHUCK TODD:

Governor Murphy, how do we not run into the testing problem we ran into pre-Omicron?

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

You’ve got to preempt this, clearly. And we’re now getting caught up as a country. Thankfully, our cases are going down. New Jersey, New York got hit earliest on all of these waves. But I think, listen, I, I agree with Governor Hutchinson. We’ve got to – we’re not going to manage this to zero. We have to learn how to live with this. Please God, there’s not another significant wave. Every time you think you’ve got this thing figured out, it humbles you.

CHUCK TODD:

You’ve decided to make the booster part of a mandate.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

You obviously have not done any mandates, and I’m well aware of the politics of Arkansas. But look – you’ve got a booster problem. You’ve had a – there’s been a vaccination problem, but you’ve got an even bigger discrepancy among – political discrepancy, Ds and Rs, when it comes to boosters. And you’ve run into some problems. What – do you have a new message to try to get people to boost, get boosted?

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON:

Well, first of all, it is very important. I’ve got my boost and I’m delighted with it because I think it adds a great level of protection. And so it’s education. Quite frankly, the mandates that were imposed at the federal level that the Supreme Court struck down were counterproductive, as we predicted. I predicted that it increased resistance. And so our vaccination rate has actually slowed. We’re continuing to go up gradually, but, you know, the heavy-handed approach doesn’t work. It’s got to be that education. It’s got to be that consistent messaging. And so we want to improve those numbers. But the right path is not by the mandate route.

CHUCK TODD:

Why have mandates worked for you?

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

Well, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the health care mandate, and that’s where we’ve focused.

CHUCK TODD:

You’ve added the booster for the health care, right?

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

We tweaked it —

CHUCK TODD:

Before the CDC has, right?

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

Yeah. Absolutely. We tweaked it to add boosters. And we’ve broadened communities. So we’ve included corrections, other vulnerable communities –

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think mandates work, because he – Governor Hutchinson doesn’t, thinks they’ve been counterproductive. What say you?

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

Well the – when the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Biden administration’s step on health care, that was an easy step for us to take. And we know, as Governor Hutchinson said, boosters add an enormous amount more defense for you. Frankly in New Jersey, we’re under-boosted. Getting folks up, it isn’t – I think it’s a national challenge. Whether it’s mandated or not, we’ve got to get more folks boosted.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to talk about the political divide a little bit. Just sitting here together, you guys are going to – some might criticize you, right? Some on the left may criticize you. Some on the right may criticize you.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

That’d be the first time for both of us.

CHUCK TODD:

It is, it is kind of an absurd thing that this has happened. What, what’s a way to fix it in Arkansas? Because it looks to me like the politics are going further to the right and Arkansas’s going to be more divisive. Your likely successor is probably going to play a little bit further to the right than you.

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON:

Well, the key thing is leadership. Leadership needs to set example. Phil and I, we fight in the partisan trenches in elections. We feel strongly about our respective parties. But once you get elected, you serve all the people, and you’ve got to find the common ground to address the problems of America and our states. And so that’s setting the right example in that. That doesn’t weaken us in terms of the criticism or the differences of opinion. But we have to be responsible adults whenever we’re leading a state. And we’ve got to implement things that impact people’s lives. And so to me, it’s leadership. But it’s also the communication. That’s what the NGA does is it brings us together. And we’re not together enough.

CHUCK TODD:

Governor Murphy, in the past, the governors might be an interesting group to lobby and talk about electoral reform. Is that going to be on your agenda this week? And is there a way to sort of – we see that some states are going off into some uncomfortable places. Is the NGA going to try to play a role here, or is this one of those issues that’s too divisive?

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

Yeah. I should make one point, and Asa would, will want to make this first. Thirty-nine governors here, by the way. A big contingent from both parties.

CHUCK TODD:

The three largest aren’t, for what it’s worth, Newsom, DeSantis, and Abbott. But –

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

Yeah, but still. I’ll take 39.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, fair enough.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

You’d always love to have 50, plus the territories –

CHUCK TODD:

But on the voting – on the voting question?

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

Yeah, listen, I think that’s one where there’s going to be a pretty partisan debate and divide, honestly.

CHUCK TODD:

And you guys probably can’t come together on anything.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY:

We’re expanding it in New Jersey and we’re proud of that. We want to expand it further. I know other states are taking a different approach to that. That’s probably one that we’re going to have to agree to disagree, sadly in my opinion. But there’s a lot of common ground: infrastructure, education, and so on.

CHUCK TODD:

What do you expect to hear from the president tomorrow? You guys are meeting with him at the Governors Ball tomorrow, right?

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON:

We are. And first of all, I expect to – his administration has really been responsive on questions that we’ve had about the infrastructure spending. I expect the president to talk about bipartisanship. I’d actually like to see that implemented in the, in the policies that go forward. But this is an annual tradition I expect will go very well.

CHUCK TODD:

And as you said, with an infrastructure bill to tell you how to implement, yeah, I imagine everybody’s going to be in a pretty good mood on that front. Thank you both. Appreciate it and coming on together. When we come back, is there freedom of speech on college campuses? Depends on whom you ask. That’s next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Data Download time. The increasingly common public debate over free speech took a few different forms this week. But whether you’re talking about podcasts on Spotify or books in Tennessee classrooms, the issue remains: Americans are divided over what, when, where, and how things can or can’t be said. And nowhere is this debate more apparent than on college campuses, these days, the importance of free speech in our democracy. Students almost uniformly agree on the importance here, 84% of all students. You look in demographic breakdowns, there’s really barely a difference between white, non-white, male, female when it comes to the importance of free speech. Now when it comes to the issue of how secure free speech is in this country, well, couple years ago, there were majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republican students who all felt that free speech was pretty secure in this country. Two years later, the numbers haven’t changed among Democrats here, but look at this. Down almost 50% among Republican students, double digits here among independents, who believe free speech in this country is not as secure as it was two years ago. And this extends in some places on college campuses themselves. The school’s climate: is it stifling free expression? 2016, half the students thought it did, 54%. Five years later, it’s up even more, 65%. Now look, that doesn’t mean that some students don’t believe there should be some curbing of some speech. So, for instance, there’s a majority that believes colleges should be able to restrict offensive racial slurs. But go down. How about clothes with Confederate flags? Only a third believe that college campuses should do this. And what about presidential candidate posters? Even less than that, at 10%. So this issue of free speech is something that students care about and, with their experiences on campuses these days, are worried about. When we come back, Pentagon officials are warning that Russia has enough troops to move far into Ukraine. So why does Ukraine’s government say the U.S. is overstating a Russian threat? Stay with us.

[BEGIN TAPE]

SEC. LLOYD AUSTIN:

As you know for months now, Russia has been deploying forces to Crimea along Ukraine’s border, including in Belarus. While we don’t believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine, he clearly now has that capability.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Carol Lee, those were some pretty striking words by the secretary of defense. Very straightforward and it was almost a bit alarming, and I think you and I were talking about this the other day. It almost felt like they were taunting Putin. Like, “Okay, you’ve got everything. What are you going to do?”

CAROL LEE:

Look, if you talk to administration officials, there’s a growing concern, and particularly you heard chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, say that they haven’t seen anything of this magnitude. You’d have to go back way into the Cold War. And that what Russia has done in terms of building up around Ukraine, in terms of air power, ballistic missiles, you know, 100,000 ground troops, that that is something that could become horrific was the word that he used. And what they’re trying to do is essentially lay the groundwork for something that people in the administration, some of them really genuinely believe could take place. And at the same time then, you see the president of Ukraine, Zelenskyy taking a very different tone. And what I’ve been told by administration officials is that’s not the Ukrainians’ view. In private conversations, they’re much more sober about this. And he has a domestic audience to play to. He has to worry about his economy falling, and he has to worry about people panicking. And the administration, one of the interesting things about this is if you just look at the Afghanistan example, they were criticized for not pulling people out of the embassies. And they made that decision. They didn’t want to undermine the government. Now they’re kind of taking a different tact, in a very different environment, and sounding alarms and moving some folks, families of diplomats out of Ukraine.

CHUCK TODD:

And yet, Eugene, Zelenskyy was upset that we were shipping out our embassy already. Like, “Hey, stop sending that message.”

EUGENE SCOTT:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, he wants to keep his approval ratings high. He wants to keep his people believing that things are safe and not panicking. But he also wants our help if things get out of control. And he needs Western allies to be available to push back on Russia if they move forward because they can’t protect themselves without our help.

CHUCK TODD:

Steve, it feels like we’re trying to figure out: is Putin a rational actor?

STEPHEN HAYES:

Right. That’s a good question. I mean, I think when we look at this from our perspective, you look at the things he’s doing and say, “This doesn’t make sense.” And you see a lot of that in reporting in the media. But go back and look at what Vladimir Putin has been saying over all these years. Go back to speeches that he was giving in the mid-aughts. He was telling us what he wants to do. He wants to reconstitute the Russian empire, the old Soviet Union. When you have autocratic leaders like that tell you what they want to do, you’re smart to pay attention. The problem I think from my perspective about the Biden administration is this alarm comes a little bit too late. It’s not like these 100,000 troops just went to the border. They’ve been there for a long time. And you’ve had, I think Republicans and conservatives, raising alarms about what Putin was up to, pointing out the kinds of assets, military assets, that were in position months ago. And the Biden administration seems to be just catching up.

CHUCK TODD:

Claire?

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

Well, first of all, I think Putin, you have to assume he’s rational. He may be irrational. And if I were to look, I would say he’s trying to mine the divisions within NATO right now. He’s trying to exacerbate the Germany being an outlier and being worried about being all in against him. He wants to highlight Macron, making noises —

CHUCK TODD:

That’s the assumption that he’s rational, yeah —

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

Yeah, that he’s trying to make NATO not a strong alliance by playing this card at this time. And the other thing I got to say is you said Republicans. The other thing that’s happening here, it is amplifying a divide in the Republican Party. I mean, when you’ve got people on the Fox cable network —

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, it’s Tucker Carlson. Look, he’s being used. I could show you some clips here.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

Then –

CHUCK TODD:

He’s being used on RT. No, no, no.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

He’s being used by RT, the propaganda arm of Putin all the time now here. It’s —

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

The Republicans —

CHUCK TODD:

– astonishing.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

– are loving up on Putin right now, a bunch of them.

STEPHEN HAYES:

Some of them —

CHUCK TODD:

What’s this about? What is this about —

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

A bunch of them.

STEPHEN HAYES:

Donald Trump did this earlier, right? He did this throughout his presidency. He was very warm in his rhetoric toward Vladimir Putin, even if his policies were, I think, tougher in many respects certainly than Joe Biden’s. The challenge is he’s trying to exploit these divisions. He’s doing it in NATO, on an international scale. It wasn’t helpful, I think, when the president said, talked about NATO divisions almost as an analyst, like he were here with us on the round table.

CHUCK TODD:

Spoke honestly.

STEPHEN HAYES:

I mean, honestly. But what Rob Portman said in his conversation with you was a lot more appropriate for a leader of a country like the United States, to say, “Look, we’re doing what we can to bring NATO together.” And on the domestic side, there’s no question that Republicans are divided on this. And I think you have Republicans saying irresponsible things about Vladimir Putin, pretending that he’s not the threat that he is.

CHUCK TODD:

It’s a virus that’s growing.

CAROL LEE:

Part of —

CHUCK TODD:

Go ahead.

CAROL LEE:

– the reason that you’re seeing this alarm right now is because the window is closing for any sort of diplomatic resolution. That, if you look at the timeline in terms of when Putin would be, the administration looks at mid-February to the end of March. That’s when this would happen. And so there’s a very limited amount of time for diplomacy. I thought Senator Durbin’s comment to you was very interesting, in that he was putting this on the Ukrainians. “Why don’t you just say you won’t join NATO?” And I talked to an administration official over the weekend about this, and they’re not going to touch that, at least not publicly —

CHUCK TODD:

Nope.

CAROL LEE:

But, you know, the other question is —

CHUCK TODD:

It would take Ukraine saying it.

CAROL LEE:

– would it be enough?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, that’s an interesting question that I don’t have time to deal with here. That’s all we have for today. Thank you for watching. Next week as the Olympics get under way, I’m not going to jinx the Bengals or the Chiefs by saying go to either one of them. The Bills and the Packers are out. But either way, enjoy today’s gameS.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL:

Go Chiefs.

CHUCK TODD:

See you next Sunday. She had to do it. If it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.

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