Ahead of a likely Russian invasion of Ukraine, State Department spokesman Ned Price and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki spent Wednesday afternoon under fire from establishment media reporters and, of course, Fox’s Peter Doocy over the administration’s flip-flop on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the failure to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the impact the war could have on the U.S. economy.
Price went first and, from the get-go, the always-tough and persistent Matt Lee of the Associated Press went right to the news that Germany had suspended Nord Stream 2 from Russia and the U.S. would sanction the company (after having opposed doing so for a year).
Lee bluntly asked:
[Y]ou guys have been saying...for over a year since the waivers were — were first granted that, in fact, this gave you additional leverage, withholding the sanctions did and would serve as a deterrent. Clearly, it didn't...provide you with any leverage at all...cause of...the invasion beginning...[H]ow do you explain to people why you didn't impose these — these sanctions earlier?
Price insisted “let’s rewind the tape” to first praising actions taken by Germany and the U.S. for their “trans-Atlantic unity” in action. Of course, Lee didn’t bite.
“I don't understand why you don't think you would have had more leverage if it hadn’t been — if these sanctions had been imposed before the pipeline was finished,” Lee added, to which Price reiterated much of it had already been built when Biden arrived and the sanctions might have led to the pipeline going live (which makes no sense).
Lee later returned by hitting back at the idea of sanctions being deterrents: “I thought we just spent, like, the last couple of months...arguing that the threat of sanctions was the deterrent and that...if you actually imposed them, then you would lose that deterrence...[Y]ou can’t have it both ways.”
Going over to The Psaki Show, Doocy Time commenced with the Fox reporter picking up from his questions on Tuesday concerning gas prices: “[A] lot of focus on the economic pain in Russia...but what about the economic pain here? The Russians are saying they think gas prices in Europe are going to double. How high could they get here.”
Psaki argued the pain Americans feel will, in part, be based upon “what President Putin does” even though Biden will “tak[e] every step [he] can...to minimize the impact[.]”
Doocy kept pressing for an amount before pivoting to how she’s framed Putin’s psyche and if the sanctions have led to “any Russian military units turn[ing] around” (click “expand”):
DOOCY: But even without this going on, gas in California is almost $5 a gallon. Should people across the country expect to see that kind of a number when they go to gas up their car? $5? $6?
PSAKI: Well, again, I think as you heard the President say last week, standing up for our values is not without cost. What we're trying to do is minimize the cost. So I don't have a prediction of it right now because we're trying to minimize the impact on the global energy markets.
DOOCY: Okay. Something that you said — two different things that you’ve said so far today. You said you think right now, Putin is improvising and adapting, but you've also said that you very much anticipate and predict that he’s going to invade further. So which is it? Is he adapting or is he still invading?
PSAKI: Think big here, Peter. He can be preparing to invade, which we have said and that continues to be the case while making adaptations of when, if, how to what his strategy is. That what we’re seeing. Both are true.
DOOCY: If that's what you're seeing, you announced the sanctions yesterday.
DOOCY: Did any Russian military units turn around and head back towards Russia?
PSAKI: Again, I'm not going to get into assessments from here of movements of any military, but also what we're trying to do is prevent a war, prevent devastation on the Ukrainian people. And we're already seeing the impact on the economy in Russia. We’re going to continue to make clear that are much — that is — if he continues to escalate, we will as well.
Rewinding to the beginning, new AP reporter Chris Megerian pressed on what steps the administration has taken “to prepare Americans for” the “increase[d] costs” of living and then whether a full Russian invasion would be proof that their “strategy” of threatening sanctions has “failed.”
On the former, Psaki insisted Americans being squeezed economically is something that’s “very personal to” Biden and, on the latter, she offered a word salad about how they’re going beyond what they did to Russia in 2014 and do indeed plan to continue their course of action on sanction threats. Thankfully, USA Today’s Joey Garrison tried again on that point later (though to no avail).
Meanwhile, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins grilled Psaki on how the notion of an imminent invasion has been hovering for some time as well as Biden’s past opposition to sanctioning those behind Nord Stream 2 (click “expand”):
COLLINS: Does the White House share the assessment of the Australian prime minister today that an attack is likely within 24 hours?
PSAKI: I’m not going to give an additional timeline to it. We have been saying it could happen at any time and they have been in attack position for some time now, but I'm not going to give you an additional day, hour, moment.
COLLINS: But, just to follow up on that, you have been saying it's imminent for some time. You guys stopped for a little bit —
COLLINS: — for a little bit then you went back to it. Has there been a new warning to the Ukrainians in the last 24 hours or so? Because it seems that CNN and others are reporting they have shared new intelligence about the threat of just how quickly an attack could happen.
PSAKI: We don't know what that's based on. We have been conveying in close touch with the Ukrainians. We have been conveying that they are capable of operationalizing at any time. That has been the case. I would note that obviously our preference would be that President Putin doesn't further invade and, as I said a few minutes ago, we're assessing that he has had to adjust, adapt to the strength of the unity of the global community to what our reaction has been and he has been forced to — need to respond and adapt his own actions. We will see. We still very much anticipate and predict he will invade further. But, again, we're also seeing an impact on how he’s behaving.
COLLINS: And Nord Stream 2, last month, the WH opposed an effort on Capitol Hill to put sanctions on this pipeline. Last year, of course, President Biden waived the sanctions on that. And now, today, he is imposing the sanctions on it, which is a pretty big shift. So, can you just explain the changes and where you —
PSAKI: Well, we don't see it as a shift at all. We have never supported the pipeline. It was 90 percent built when the President took office. We have always spoken out against the pipeline. The question was what was the most effective step in order to — to have the result that we have now over the last 24 hours and there were calls by some in Congress to do pre-emptive sanctions on — or earlier sanctions — or take earlier steps, I should say, on Nord Stream 2. We disagreed with that strategy. We worked through a diplomatic path with the Germans. You saw the German chancellor make the announcement yesterday and the announcement today was complimentary to that.
A few reporters later, The New York Times’s Zolan Kanno-Youngs gave it a go on Nord Stream 2, but was similarly spun by Psaki.
To see the relevant transcripts from the February 23 briefings, click here for the State Department and here for the White House. To see a few questions asked at the Pentagon briefing (including two from Fox’s Jennifer Griffin), click here.