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Jake Tapper On The President’s Latest Line Of Consequences In Ukraine

Thursday, February 20, 2014

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HH: However, we are going to keep our eye on Ukraine. I’ll be joined later by Governor Scott Walker, by Robert O’Brien, our former representative at the general assembly of the United Nations, and I’ll be talking with experts throughout the day. But I begin with Jake Tapper of CNN, host of The Lead. Jake, welcome, it’s good to talk to you.

JT: Nice to talk to you, Hugh.

HH: Now this afternoon, President Yanukovyich and opposition leaders announced there’s a truce, and we’ve got the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland flying to Kiev tomorrow. But all the arsenals have been looted, the Secret Police are arming up, and Putin lost a hockey game today, so he’s in a bad mood. How are you covering this story?

JT: Well, it’s been our lead, obviously, for the last three days. Our reporter, the senior international correspondent for CNN, Nick Paton Walsh, is there in Kiev, and we went to him as news was breaking of this truce, of this meeting between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders. And you couldn’t tell it from the protestors behind him. They had certainly not abated, and when it came to their presence and their enthusiasm, and there certainly were, continue to be, explosions, small explosions behind, whether it was small grenades or what. So I don’t know that the news of the truce has gotten down to the people actually fighting in the streets, both the government and the protestors.

HH: I was hammering on CNN yesterday, because they weren’t going live to the assets you have in place. And I also go to CNN when international crises break, because you guys have the bureaus. You opened your show with it, and you’ve been all over it. But I’m wondering, does CNN have other assets in places like the Crimea where there are enormous numbers of Russian troops and naval facilities, or in the Western Ukraine, where these arsenals have been looted by pro-freedom Ukranians, if I can call them that, anti-Russian Ukranians? Have you got more than one guy in country?

JT: You know, we have more than one guy in country, and just to be completely honest, I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to say in terms of where we have people, just because obviously…

HH: That makes sense, sure.

JT: It’s very dangerous for journalists right now in that country. I’m sure you know that one journalist was killed, taken from his car and shot in the stomach, and several dozen were wounded yesterday, were injured, and according to Reporters Without Borders, they’ve been targeted. Whether it’s the Secret Police or who knows who doing the targeting, it’s unclear as of now. But I’m not really sure what I should say.

HH: All right, that’s very fair, and I don’t want you to. And then talk to me about how you’re planning coverage every day, because this is a very difficult story. It could end up with Russian troops marching into Ukraine. Goodness knows, Putin invaded Georgia on less than this.

JT: Yeah, no, sure, it’s absolutely terrifying in that sense about what could happen at any moment. And obviously, U.S.-Russian relations, the Obama and Putin relationship, is probably the weakest it’s ever been. So I can’t say that I’m not concerned about that. I mean, we’re planning on covering, I’m covering it every day. You know, what we do is we plan on who can we get that who would be a guest who could either put it into perspective or make news on the subject. Yesterday, we had John McCain talking about how he was pushing for sanctions. Today, we had Richard Haas from the Council on Foreign Relations. Obviously, we’re always putting in requests for individuals from the Obama administration, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House Foreign Affairs Committee, to come on and explain what they think is going on and where they think U.S. policy should be.

HH: John Kerry said today…

JT: Plus going to Ukraine, going to our correspondents. We went to Phil Black, our correspondent who is in Kiev, yesterday went to Nick Paton Walsh, who’s in Kiev today. And for me, it’s a riveting story, and for you as well.

HH: Yeah, Kerry said today, the Secretary of State, all of us are deeply disturbed. We are talking about the possibility of sanctions or other steps with our friends in Europe and elsewhere in order to try to create the environment for compromise. And that threw me for a loop. I’m not sure what you compromise about. You don’t shoot people in a square. Here’s what the President said earlier today, Jake Tapper, so people can be on the same page with the news.

BO: The United States condemns in strongest terms the violence that’s taking place there. And we have been deeply engaged with our European partners as well as both the Ukranian government and the opposition to try to assure that that violence ends. But we hold the Ukranian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protestors in an appropriate way, that the Ukranian people able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression. And I want to be very clear that as we work though these next several days in Ukraine that we are going to be watching very carefully, and we expect the Ukranian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protestors. We’ve said that we also expect peaceful protestors to remain peaceful. And we’ll be monitoring very carefully the situation, recognizing that along with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences is people step over the line.

HH: Now Jake Tapper, if people step over the line, I’m almost amazed that he used that language given the red line fiasco in Syria.

JT: Yeah.

HH: And the poker tell, I want to be very clear. I’m sure he said almost exactly that during the Syrian crisis. Does he think we have amnesia?

JT: And we pointed this out in our show today, the use of the term the line, and in fact, I asked Haas if you’re Yanukovych, and you’re sitting there and you hear President Obama talk about that line, how resonant is that? How much does the red line of Bashar al-Assad, the threat that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, that would be crossing a red line for the President. How much does that mean? He said it was a fair question. Obviously, you don’t know. The other thing that was interesting was that Haas said that he thought the U.S. options, there were far fewer options in Ukraine than in Syria, and one of the reasons I imagine would be because of Putin and his alliance with Yanukovych. And you don’t want this to be a, it already is a proxy conflict. You don’t want it to be a proxy war. So the options are quite limited, Haas said. But I agree, I was surprised by the use of the term line, and also, I thought what was interesting, what consequences are there? What will they be? Secretary of State John Kerry today raised the specter of sanctions, as did the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine last night. But it’s not clear exactly what the full tool kit as deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes referred to today, what’s in that tool kit, what can the U.S. do. It will be interesting to see what happens when the foreign ministers from Europe come to Kiev and talk to Yanukovych and the other foreign minister there.

HH: It’s almost as though someone said to him right before he went out, whatever you do, don’t use the word lines. And he couldn’t help himself, because it’s, it’s like a heat-seeking missile following the story lede, is Obama threatens another red line. He didn’t use red, obviously, but is he that unaware of the consequences not of the Ukranian knockdown but of his Syrian collapse?

JT: Well, I think, look, I mean, you’re asking me to get into the President’s brain and I can’t do that. But I can say a couple things. One is I think one of the things that the President knows is that there is a tremendous reluctance for the U.S., among the American people, for the U.S. to get involved in another military conflict right now, that that’s something that the nation is war weary. And so I believe that the President and the White House feel that actions that end up not leading to war, whether it’s seen as weakness by some or not, whether it’s seen as backing away from a red line or not, ultimately, that the President will enjoy support for not taking the country to war. I think that that’s one calculation that they make.

HH: But you know what’s interesting, Jake…

JT: And I don’t know that it’s wrong. It might be cynical, but I don’t know that it’s wrong.

HH: After Syria collapsed and the Iranian deal was announced, a lot of people condemned the Iran deal as a Munich moment. That was the lines used by people like Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol and others. Now, we have another line drawing exercise, and who knows what Putin’s going to do with Sochi shuts down. It begins to sound like appeasement, and when I talk like that, the left gets really angry. Here’s Bob Beckel on the Five earlier today.

BB: I listened to that Hugh Hewitt, who I actually like personally, but he’s a right wing jerk in many other ways. He said Obama’s responsible for losing Eastern Europe. Come on.

HH: Now obviously, I didn’t say he’s responsible for losing Eastern Europe. I think we should be vigilant and involved. But the left is getting very twitchy, Jake, because I think the consequences of the Obama foreign policy are piling up, and no one can avoid them.

JT: I think one of the things that there’s policy and then there’s also just politics and rhetoric. There’s the policy, for instance, of where should our missile defense be, as an example. And then there’s, and whether or not, for instance, you could relitigate Mitt Romney when Mitt Romney was mocked for saying that Russia was our number one geopolitical foe during the 2012 campaign. So that’s the policy component of it. Then there’s the rhetoric, and you know this as well as I. Sometimes, American presidents talk very tough when it comes to the Russians, or in the past, the Soviets, but their actions don’t necessarily match it. And I think that rhetoric in some cases just does go a long way.

HH: It does, and unfortunately, if it goes too far and isn’t backed up, creates the illusion of weakness or the actual reality of weakness. Jake Tapper from The Lead, thanks for joining us.

End of interview.

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