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Week in politics: Why Biden changed his mind on Ukraine; Trump's waning influence

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We turn now to the conflict in Ukraine. President Biden says the U.S. will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks there to help the Ukrainian army defend itself against Russia's invasion. The Abrams is considered the best and most sophisticated tank in the world. NPR's senior political editor Domenico Montanaro joins us. Domenico, thanks so much for being with us.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Biden administration has been saying U.S. tanks would just escalate the war, would take a long time to train Ukrainian soldiers on them. Why did the president change his mind?

MONTANARO: Well, clearly a geopolitical move here. You know, Biden wants Germany and other NATO allies to continue to be as strongly involved in aiding in the war effort as they have been. And German Chancellor Olaf Scholz certainly needed some political cover within his own country. You know, given Germany's history in that part of the world during World War II, there are a lot of Germans who are uncomfortable with the idea of German tanks rolling through Ukraine. And the U.S. is committing to sending some 31 of these Abrams tanks. And that helps relieve some of that internal German political pressure. You know, I think this is all indicative of just how much this war has really evolved. We're coming up on a year now of this war. I looked back at last year's State of the Union, and Biden in that speech touted that the U.S. had committed over $1,000,000,000 to the war effort, Scott.

SIMON: Wow.

MONTANARO: The U.S. has now spent almost $50 billion in financial, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine. So getting these tanks there, it's going to take months and logistics and training. Clearly, though, Ukraine's digging in for a long haul on a potential spring offensive here.

SIMON: Learned this week the economy grew 2.9% last quarter. The president spoke about that before a union crowd in Virginia Thursday - a record number of small business openings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And every time - every time - someone starts a small business, it's an act of hope. It's an act of hope. And that's what we're seeing in these record numbers that we're breaking now - hope.

SIMON: Domenico, does this economic news change any of the focus from classified documents that were found in the president's house and former office the same week? We should note it was revealed former Vice President Pence apparently has some classified documents, too.

MONTANARO: Well, first of all, if you've heard hope before as a political slogan, you don't have to look too far back at another campaign that President Biden was a part of. And I say campaign because this is the time that we start to see - you know, it's a year to go until 2024 presidential election where, you know, a president who has given all the strongest indications possible that he's running for reelection start to sort of test out some of these messages. You know, it can be difficult for presidents to communicate how their policies have helped people directly, especially when they're couched among broader, more wide-ranging and complicated bills. So this is part of that sales job. And in the short term, you know, we're in this period ahead of the State of the Union address, which is coming up in a little over a week now. You know, presidents often float some of what we might hear in that speech. And I think that's some of what you're starting to hear.

SIMON: Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel won reelection yesterday. But she had two challengers. How do you read the difference of opinion in that party?

MONTANARO: Well, when it comes to the RNC race, I mean, Ronna McDaniel was expected to win. You know, the question was by how much? And she was Trump's handpicked chair. Trump, during his presidency, stacked the RNC with loyalists to him. So, frankly, it was a clear outcome of what was going to happen. But it's not like her challengers weren't Trump supporters as well. You know, they are. But what we saw was something of a proxy war kind of emerge between Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, you know, something we're going to continue to see play out. Harmeet Dhillon is an attorney and former vice chair of the California Republican Party. She got a boost from DeSantis when he said that the party needed, quote, "new blood." Before that, Dhillon had the commitments of just 32 members. After the vote, she had 51. Now, all that is pretty insider-y (ph). And an RNC chair's job is to raise money, create infrastructure for state parties. The problem is that during the Trump era, Republicans have lost and underperformed in competitive areas. While Trump's still a favorite to win in GOP presidential nomination, you have a lot more Republicans now willing to criticize him and couching it in wanting to win or needing new blood.

SIMON: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.