Wednesday’s meeting between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t change the trajectory of geopolitical strife or cause another Cold War. The leaders were cordial but had little to agree upon. But they did have one thing in common: They were both grilled by women reporters and got attitude in response.
Much has already been said about ABC News reporter Rachel Scott, who didn’t mince words when she asked Putin about his alleged treatment of political rivals during his solo news conference following his meeting with Biden.
“The list of your political opponents who are dead, imprisoned or jailed is long,” Scott began. “[Russian opposition leader] Alexey Navalny’s organization calls for free and fair elections, an end to corruption, but Russia has outlawed that organization, calling it extremist. And you now have prevented anyone who supports him to run for office. My question for you Mr. President: What are you so afraid of?”
Putin responded by describing the political organization founded by Navalny as “extremist” and accused it of calling for “mass disorder” and law-breaking. He then pivoted to some predictable whataboutism, citing “disorder” and “destruction” in the United States last year following the death of George Floyd, whom Putin did not bother naming.
Then things got weird.
From CNN, emphasis ours:
Putin said that Russia felt “sympathy” for the US [following the Floyd protests] and doesn’t want such demonstrations to happen within its borders.
Scott rejected Putin’s dodge, bluntly telling the Russian leader, “You didn’t answer my question, sir.”
“If all your political opponents are dead, in prison, poisoned — doesn’t that send a message that you don’t want a fair political fight?” Scott pressed.
Putin then invoked the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, suggesting a false equivalence between the insurrectionists arrested for rioting and the political opponents of Putin imprisoned in Russia.
“As for who is killing whom and throwing whom in jail, people came to the US Congress with political demands,” Putin said. “They face prison sentences of up to 20, maybe even 25 years.”
“They are being called ‘domestic terrorists.’ They are being accused of a number of other crimes,” he added.
You don’t have to be a political scientist or scholar to know that there is a world of difference between the arrests of those who dare to loudly disagree with Putin and the arrests of pro-Trump rioters who descended upon the US Capitol under the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen and that it was their job to take back the country by any means necessary.
But sure, okay. Not the first time a tough question received a bullshit answer.
Putin wasn’t the only one feeling defensive, however. As Biden retreated from the U.S.-Russia summit, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins confronted him about comments he made during his solo press conference. Biden said that he emphasized the US’s cyber capabilities and warned Putin that a Russian cyber attack would be responded to in kind. The Guardian reported that Biden “seemed somewhat confident” that Russia would heed his warning, saying, “I think the last thing he wants now is a cold war.”
Collins must have sensed his confidence as well, and she questioned him about it. His response was, in a word, aggressive.
From The Guardian (bolding ours):
Collins asked the US president why he seemed so confident that Vladimir Putin would change his behavior when he seems to have continued his aggressive actions since Biden took office.
“I’m not confident,” Biden said. “Where the hell — what do you do all the time? When did I say I was confident?”
Biden went on to say that he believed the global response to Putin’s aggressive behavior would put pressure on him to alter his approach to foreign policy.
But Collins did not put words into Biden’s mouth. She was simply questioning his apparent optimism following talks with Putin, a megalomaniac who is known for playing by his own rules and nobody else’s. Perhaps Biden was playing nice, but it’s fair for a journalist to question a politician’s motives.
Biden later apologized for his behavior when another reporter explained why Collins asked her question.
“Look, to be a good reporter, you’ve gotta be negative,” Biden said. “You’ve gotta have a negative view of life, it seems to me, you never ask a positive question ... I apologize for having been short.”
Collins accepted the backhanded apology, noting that he was under no obligation to do that. But she did press that she was just doing her job.
“Asking the president a question does not mean it has a negative slant or a positive slant,” Collins said. “It is simply a way to get into the president’s mindset of how he is viewing something. Something as major as a meeting with a world leader who has interfered in US elections, jailed his political opponents, dismissed human rights... and so I do appreciate the president’s apology, but it is not necessary... it is just our job to ask the president questions.”
Well, both Scott and Collins certainly understood their assignments today.