Discover more from Letters from an American
February 21, 2023
Speaking at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, today, President Biden continued to define this global moment as one in which democracies are defending their way of life against rising authoritarianism.
Biden’s speech followed his surprise visit to Kyiv yesterday, a visit that demonstrated for the world that Putin has failed to take the city in a year of brutal assaults. It built on Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech to the Munich Security Conference saying that Russian atrocities in Ukraine are crimes against humanity. And it built on the fact that the U.S. sent the largest delegation ever to the conference and that the delegation was bipartisan.
Biden began his speech noting that a year ago “the world was bracing for the fall of Kyiv.” But he had just come from there and could report: “Kyiv stands strong! Kyiv stands proud. It stands tall. And most important, it stands free.”
The 2022 Russian invasion tested the world’s democracies, Biden said, and they stood up for national sovereignty, for the right of people to live free from aggression, and for democracy. Putin “thought autocrats like himself were tough and leaders of democracies were soft,” Biden said, but he “found himself at war with a nation led by a man whose courage would be forged in fire and steel: President Zelenskyy.” A year later, “President Putin is confronted with something today that he didn’t think was possible a year ago. The democracies of the world have grown stronger, not weaker. But the autocrats of the world have grown weaker, not stronger.”
“A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never be able to [erase] the people’s love of liberty,” he said. “Brutality will never grind down the will of the free. And Ukraine—Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never. For free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.”
Biden said it’s time to decide what kind of world we want to build. Looking at the coalition that supports Ukraine, he said: “We need to take the strength and capacity of this coalition and apply it to lifting up—lifting up the lives of people everywhere, improving health, growing prosperity, preserving the planet, building peace and security, treating everyone with dignity and respect. That’s our responsibility. The democracies of the world have to deliver it for our people.”
It’s time to choose “between chaos and stability,” he said. “Between building and destroying. Between hope and fear. Between democracy that lifts up the human spirit and the brutal hand of the dictator who crushes it. Between nothing less than limitation and possibilities, the kind of possibilities that come when people…live not in captivity but in freedom. Freedom. Freedom. There is no sweeter word than freedom. There is no nobler goal than freedom. There is no higher aspiration than freedom.”
“Americans know that, and you know it,” Biden told his Polish audience. “And all that we do now must be done so our children and grandchildren will know it as well.
“Freedom. The enemy of the tyrant and the hope of the brave and the truth of the ages.
“Stand with us,” Biden said. “We will stand with you.”
During his speech, Biden thanked Poland for taking in 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, then turned to the United States. “The American people are united in our resolve as well,” he said. “All across my country, in big cities and small towns, Ukrainian flags fly from American homes. Over the past year, Democrats and Republicans in our United States Congress have come together to stand for freedom. That’s who Americans are, and that’s what Americans do.”
The line drew applause, and indeed, five Republican lawmakers met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv today. Led by Representative Mike McCaul (R-TX), the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, they pledged their support for Ukraine.
But extremist Republicans stand against continuing Ukraine aid. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and ten other Republican representatives recently introduced to Congress a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution calling for an end to U.S. aid to Ukraine and urging “a peace agreement,” a position that accepts Russia’s invasion as legitimate.
Right-wing media has been trying to spin Biden’s trip to Kyiv and speech in Poland as proof that he doesn’t care about the derailment of the train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio. In fact, Republican governor Mike DeWine initially rejected federal help when Biden offered it, saying he didn’t see the need for it.
The right wing has also gone after Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg for the accident, although it was the Trump administration that weakened safety regulations put in place under Barack Obama that could have mitigated the crisis, and railroad personnel cuts that left the train understaffed. Before the accident, train workers had worried that the 151-car train, 9,300 feet long and weighing 18,000 tons, was too long and too heavy to travel safely.
But Buttigieg is answering his Republican critics. After Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) called for Buttigieg’s resignation, Buttigieg responded: “I can’t help but notice the last time this agency heard from him on rail regulation was his signature being on a letter that was pretty obviously drafted by industry, calling on us to weaken our practices around track inspection.”
Concerns about train safety seem warranted: on Monday, four train cars derailed in Riverbank, California, and another train of 31 cars carrying coal derailed today in Gothenburg, Nebraska. Unlike in Ohio, in neither case were there injuries or, apparently, hazardous spills.
Buttigieg has called for a three-pronged push to improve safety and hold the freight rail industry accountable for accidents. Among those proposals are calls for safer cars, paid sick leave for railroad workers, and larger crew sizes, some of the very things railroad workers wanted last fall. After Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) tweeted that Buttigieg should “[s]how up, do your job and stop playing politics with every crisis you find,” Buttigieg responded with his proposals and wrote: “If you’re serious, I’ll work with you on this.”
As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post spelled out today, right-wing figures like Fox News Channel (FNC) personality Tucker Carlson and newly elected Ohio senator J.D. Vance are now spinning the Ohio disaster as an issue of racial malice, portraying it not as a result of weakened safety regulations under former president Trump, but as proof that the Biden administration is throwing white people overboard to focus on Buttigieg’s idea that “we have too many white construction workers.”
In fact, Buttigieg’s comments addressed the problem of creating opportunities for minority construction workers when white workers are brought in to work on construction projects in minority communities, and the Biden administration has passed expansive legislation that is bringing jobs to poor white communities, legislation most Republicans opposed. But the race baiting has gone so far that, Sargent notes, right-wing personalities are accusing the Biden administration of “spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people.”
Knocked out of the news by the flurry of activity around the past several days has been the filing in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation case against FNC. The texts and testimony in that filing establish that the FNC is a propaganda arm of the Republican Party.
That information is important as we grapple with House speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) apparent release of the U.S. Capitol video clips from January 6, 2021, to Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson. According to Politico, Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger, who has oversight responsibility for those files, did not learn of this deal until he heard it on the news. The Capitol Police have been leery of permitting indiscriminate release of the footage out of concern it reveals safety information.
It remains unclear how—or, perhaps, if—this permission was actually granted. Carlson publicly described his access as “unfettered,” but McCarthy isn’t commenting, and the three-person Capitol Police Board, including Manger, that oversees security decisions would likely have had to sign off on the exchange. House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) has told House Democrats he and his team are still trying to learn the details.
There is lots of buzz today about comments from the foreperson from the Georgia grand jury investigating the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Emily Kohrs said the grand jury had recommended a number of indictments and suggested that people would not be shocked to hear the names on the list. Actual indictments are in the hands of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.