May 13, 2022
Today was White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s last day at the White House after 15 months. She set out to restore truth, transparency, and accountability of the administration to the press, and to that end she has held 224 press briefings—together, all of former president Trump’s press secretaries combined held only 205 in his four years in office. Psaki gave her first press conference on January 20, 2021, the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, telling the press, “I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and for the role all of you play,” before answering questions.
Psaki’s tenure has been notable for her ability to parry loaded questions, turning them into opportunities to provide facts and information. Her quick answers to leading questions have been labeled “Psaki bombs,” and they have enabled her to redirect the conversation without engaging in the hostility that former press secretaries sometimes fell into. Her conduct and evident respect for reporters has been an important corrective to the disrespect with which the press has often been treated by lawmakers in the recent past.
When she finished today’s briefing, she thanked members of the press. “You have challenged me, you have pushed me, you have debated me, and at times we have disagreed. That is democracy in action. That is it working.” She continued: “Thank you for what you do. Thank you for making me better. And most importantly, thank you for the work every day you do to make this country stronger.”
Karine Jean-Pierre will take Psaki’s spot as the White House press secretary. The first Black woman and openly LBGTQ person to serve as press secretary, Jean-Pierre has a background as a political analyst and worked as chief of staff for Vice President Kamala Harris during the 2020 presidential campaign.
Biden has focused on strengthening ties to Asia, and has just held the nation’s first summit in the U.S. with leaders from the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN. Those nations include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. Myanmar is also a member, but its leaders were not invited because of that nation’s recent coup.
The meeting was designed to emphasize U.S. ties to the region after the previous administration pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017 and then didn’t nominate an ambassador to ASEAN. Biden is trying to lay the groundwork for future cooperation on the coronavirus, with regard to China, and against Russia; right now, he is hoping to get the ASEAN nations to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, despite the region’s ties to Moscow. The president told the leaders that the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN region are vital to the United States of America. “[A] great deal of [the] history of our world in the next 50 years is going to be written [in] the ASEAN countries and our relationship with you is the future in the coming… decades.”
In his first trip to Asia as president, Biden will travel next week to South Korea and Japan. While there, he will meet with leaders from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a strategic alliance organized in 2007 and made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.
Meanwhile, there were signs today that the split in the Republican Party is cracking further open. Former vice president Mike Pence has announced he will be campaigning for Georgia governor Brian Kemp as he tries to keep the Republican nomination away from former senator David Perdue, who is backed by former president Trump. Pence’s former chief of staff, Marc Short, is working for Kemp’s reelection. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former president George W. Bush are also backing Kemp.
Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls the Georgia battle “a growing proxy fight…between establishment forces backing Kemp and the Trump loyalists who want to remake the state Republican Party in the former president’s mold.”
And yet, Kemp is still an extremist who toes the party line, including in his work to suppress the vote in Georgia. As Pence said of him: “He built a safer and stronger Georgia by cutting taxes, empowering parents and investing in teachers, funding law enforcement, and standing strong for the right to life.”
That embrace of that same Republican ideology in Texas has the state’s electrical grid back in the news, as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has asked consumers to scale back energy use to make up for six power-generation facilities that failed just before a hot weekend.
Most of Texas is on its own power grid, a decision made in the 1930s to keep it clear of federal regulation. This isolation means both that it avoids federal regulation and that it cannot import more electricity during periods of high demand. To keep electricity prices low, ERCOT did not prepare its equipment for freezing weather, and in February 2021 the Texas electric grid failed during a cold wave, leaving more than 3 million people without electricity or heat. Two hundred and forty-six people died, while El Paso, which is not part of ERCOT and is instead linked to a larger grid that includes other states and thus is regulated, had weatherized its equipment and its customers lost power only briefly.
The problem didn’t stop there. The then–chief executive officer of ERCOT recently testified that Texas governor Greg Abbott told ERCOT to keep the wholesale price of electricity at an astonishing $9000 per megawatt-hour (one study said this was $6,578 too high) for about three days longer than needed, thus overcharging customers by about $26.3 billion.
That money did not appear to fix the system. In June 2021, mechanical failures during a heat wave pushed the state to the verge of blackouts and prompted ERCOT to ask people to turn their AC to higher temperatures, turn off their lights, and avoid using appliances that take a lot of electricity. Now, less than a year later, the system is in trouble again.
News of the issue dropped after 5:00 this evening, prompting Democratic candidate for Texas governor Beto O’Rourke to accuse Abbott of trying to bury the story that he cannot keep the Texas power grid running. O’Rourke tweeted: “When I’m governor, we’ll fix the grid, lower energy bills and put people over profits.” Hours later, he tweeted simply: “I will fix the grid.”
Yesterday, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats against other countries, leaders of Finland urged their nation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) immediately. NATO was formed in 1949 to resist the expansion of the Soviet Union and now stands against Russia. Finland, which shares 830 miles of border with Russia, would bring to the alliance significant power. Sweden, which borders Finland on the other side, is contemplating the same bid and is expected to announce a similar stance soon.
NATO member Turkey expressed concern about Finland and Sweden joining NATO, which might well be Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s way of putting pressure on Congress to approve of arms sales to the nation, proposed by the administration but not yet in place.
The House has, though, passed a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine. In the Senate, Rand Paul (R-KY) stopped its fast passage, delaying the vote at least a week.
With a giant aid package for Ukraine on the way and what looks to be the expansion of NATO, today for the first time since February 18, six days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was able to make contact with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. They spoke for an hour. Of the subject of their conversation, the defense department readout said simply: “Secretary Austin urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication.”