A Pandemic, a War Zone, and a Nerd Prom

The Back Booth will be hosting a weekend edition, The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief Here.

There aren’t a whole lot of people who have navigated Presidents, Cabinet members and the top military brass into war zones without much advance warning, but two of them join The D.C. Brief’s Back Booth this weekend to talk about secret trips, Vladimir Putin, and ‘nerd prom.’

To the right: Alyssa FarahShe has been at forefront of many of the most difficult conversations in conservative politics. A former spokeswoman for the House Freedom Caucus, she joined the Trump Administration in a number of high-profile roles, including press secretary to Vice President Mike Pence, the Pentagon’s top spokeswoman, and White House communications director.

You can find the link to the right Johanna MaskaKansas Governor was where she began her career in politics. Kathleen Sebelius’ team, and later as one of then-candidate Barack Obama’s top logistics fixers starting from the kickoff in Iowa. She later joined Obama’s White House staff, where she ran the press corps’ travel logistics on everything from day trips to Des Moines to multinational global visits.

Zoom conversation and email conversations have been edited lightly.

Elliott: Where are you going in Ukraine? You’ve both been inside as VIPs have gone into dicey spaces. You sound like you are in the Protective cover of the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense’s trip was blown and they still decided to go. These conversations are what do they sound like?

Maska: I remember doing some of those under-the-cover-of-darkness trips, and the moment that your cover is blown, Russia knows that you’re there. It was decided that it would have been worse if they didn’t go. The two of them figured out where to go. But they’re really treading a fine line.

Farah, I thought exactly the same thing when Zelensky announced it instead of the U.S. side. This is how VIP trips are traditionally announced. I haven’t gotten to hear insider information if this was coordinated. Uncountable trips were made to Afghanistan. I was there unannounced. Secretary Esper announced that peace talks had begun. We had to cancel our package and pool because of the threats to Esper.

Nevertheless, it was extremely important for both Secretary of State (and Secretary of Defense) to go. The symbolism that we need to restore diplomacy by sending the Secretary of State, but also that we are active military partners of the Ukrainians and that’s what it signals by sending the Secretary of Defense. Both strength and hope are present.

Elliott: There is also the possibility of Biden visiting. Once you’ve given Zelensky a presidential visit, there’s nothing left to have come to the table.

Maska: Yeah, it’s an important kind of carrot. But you’re escalating our military engagement and our military has not been engaged. There is a greater risk of someone being injured or killed in Ukraine.

It is common for politicians to throw our government under the bus. However, after seeing it firsthand, I can tell you that when you look at the Secret Service operations and see our military personnel and their flawless executions of high stakes events, you are able to learn not to underestimate America or not underestimate our service members, and realize that they really are accomplishing everything with the precision and accuracy that we want from our government.

Elliott: So we’re sending the DiplomatsUkraine. Marines have taken care of U.S. diplomats since the early 1700s. So we’re going to again have Marines at the gate of the embassy in Kyiv. I don’t know how U.S. officials can convince Moscow that this is not an act of aggression, putting a U.S. military member on Ukrainian soil with a weapon.

Maska: This is risky. It was risky. I’m sure the Department of Defense as well as the Department of State worked closely together to determine if it was worth taking. Not to stand up for Ukraine, because obviously we are; we’re sending lots of military equipment. But rather to put U.S. personnel in that position, knowing that there’s still an active conflict going on.

Farah: And let’s be abundantly clear: the only solution to this is a diplomatic solution. Diplomats are required to broker the deal. There’s an important symbolism and strength to keeping U.S. embassies abroad. Our top diplomats, much like somebody who swears an oath to be in the military, know the true risks that they’re putting themselves in. There’s also an intelligence footprint that goes with them.

Putin, on top of all that? The Biden Administration seems to be very cautious about anything that could be interpreted as being escalatory. This should be seen as moving towards a solution and toward a brokered piece.

Elliott: I’m not asking for you to reveal state secrets, but can we really understand Putin?

Farah: I think that’s an open question. For a long time, there have been open-sourced rumors about Farah’s declining health. I hate to ever get into things that are speculative, but I think it’s backed by enough open-source information that it does seem true, that he may be thinking very much about his legacy and what Russia looks like after he’s gone and how he’s remembered. This makes him a dangerous adversary. So it’s a very, very careful diplomatic and military path we have to be on.

Maska: China is increasing its power at the same moment. Right before this conflict, Russia and China said they’re going to work together on the issues that are going to dominate the next century: technology, the Internet space, clean climate technology. They seem to be able to see the issue of whether or not the West will remain united. The Le Pen-Macron engagement can’t be ignored. Le Pen’s victory with young voters is a testament to this. It frustrates me that many Democrats in America will claim the younger generation is more liberal. It feels like the youngest generation is very behind. They don’t have pensions, they don’t have security in their jobs, they don’t have a government that has kept pace with regulating technology that has totally decimated industry.

Farah: Building off of that, there’s a growing nationalist populist trend around the world right now, but particularly in the West. They’re all different and unique, but it’s also not dissimilar from the nationalist popularist right. That we’re seeing on the rise in the U.S., which oddly has a degree of overlap with the populist left.

Elliott: It’s a circle in the end. It’s not a spectrum, really.

Farah: Our generation down, the biggest thing I’ve observed is that they’re anti-institution and that’s the most common thread. And that becomes dangerous when you’re looking at threats to democracy that we’ve had in the U.S., from under my former boss, the efforts around Jan. 6th, but it’s also internationally. Other countries that are some of our closest allies in the West are feeling that same tension, and getting dragged into very similar dynamics to what we’re seeing.

Elliott: Shifting slightly here, but I’ve seen both parties sincerely try to do something on immigration, and it just always dies. You’ve both been on the inside as efforts with varying intensity came to the table. Is this the right country for an efficient immigration system?

Farah, I think immigration has been the third rail for both political parties. You can’t even talk about a pathway to citizenship to dealing with the 11 million DACA and other populations existing in the U.S. at all without literally facing a primary and losing your place in Congress. Without being opposed to the idea of immigrants coming into America and making things easier, you cannot discuss any type of border security enforcement.

And that’s why I get so frustrated with my party talking about it in bigoted terms as though security is the only issue, and not recognizing this is a humanitarian crisis of people who are risking their lives from the Northern Triangle to come across the border into the U.S. And by the way, one in three women will be sexually assaulted on that journey. We absolutely need some kind of border security, but it’s not a wall. That’s not how we would deal with a military installation. It’s more checkpoints, it’s next generation technology, it’s drones, et cetera. The cartels can also dig through or climb over walls.

Elliott: John McCain said, “Build an 8-foot wall and they’ll find a 10-foot ladder.”

Maska: We didn’t do a good job, either, on immigration. We ought to have stood for immigration. These are human values that we should have upheld. And I think that on our side, we also have the real challenge of there’s a lot of people who believe that immigrants have taken their jobs and, and actually, that is not true. We did it in a very short term effort.

Elliott: It seems that Leader McCarthy has gotten into a PassToday’s first session in person was with his caucus. Alyssa, is there a 4D chess being played that I’m not seeing?

Farah: Kevin McCarthy appears to have more political lives that a cat. However, as someone who worked for House conservatives when he lost the 2015 Speakership, I believe he has a long way to go before he can win the battle for the whip. The rightmost flank of House Republicans is poised to be the largest and most powerful bloc it’s been in recent history after the 2022 midterms. Maintaining that unruly body of Marjorie Taylor Greenes (Paul Gosars), Matt Gaetzs, etc. in order to support McCarthy will require a constant effort. That’s why he’s consistently making overtures to those individuals. Throw in a mercurial former President whose loyalty can flip on a dime, right-wing media like Steve Bannon’s War Room already calling for new leadership, and deputies (Steve Scalise and Elise Stefanik) who have their own Speaker ambitions, McCarthy is walking a tight-rope.

Maska: We keep having the stupidest, most limited discussion about Donald Trump. Although not all his ideas are bad, the actions of Trump on January 6th were troubling. It doesn’t matter who it is in politics—if they don’t respect America’s institutions at their core, even if they seek to change them, that to me is unpatriotic, deceitful, and not worthy of how great America is and will grow to be. America is better that President Trump. I am hopeful more Republicans will stand alongside Alyssa for the sake of the Republican Party’s long-term success. So too, I wish those of us in charge of the Democratic Party’s future stand strong. The debate of ideas is more important than simply covering the cults of personality. It is what we give it oxygen.

Farah says McCarthy is a great fundraiser and is constantly working to increase the House majority. There’s wisdom to not firing your captain after winning the Super Bowl. To keep Trump’s former president happy for the coming year, he’ll have to do overtime. He also needs to understand that any one Trump comment could cause him to lose his speaking gig.

Maska says: Washington the way it is, versus Washington how it should be. Fundraising is the key to political leadership. It’s the same on the Democratic side. Pelosi is a fantastic fundraiser. Leadership isn’t kept because of how much one party has accomplished, working together with the other party to govern for the American people, but rather how much they can resist and milk the cash cow for their party.

Elliott: On a lighter note, you’re both vets of Nerd Prom, or as it’s officially known, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Do you also think this is a game of chicken While Dr. Fauci has COVID and the Vice President is unable to attend, Dr. Fauci will be there. If you’re running ops, who are you talking to about whether President Biden can still safely attend?

Maska: The Nerd Prom: Chicken or Squid Game for the Chicken? I’m certain the White House team is working closely with the White House physician, staff, and the various advance teams. The advance team should be asking the White House Correspondents’ Association many questions about protocols, but given you can’t put him in a bubble, every engagement is a risk. My guess is the President, and those around him, would push to be allowed to leave. Other voices are raising concerns. And there’s a fiery debate within the team—go or don’t go. Which is worse: getting COVID at the dinner, or going home?

Farah: Washington continues to heal from Gridiron Dinner, which was a super-spreader. As a public health specialist and octogenarian Dr. Fauci was smart to remain home, setting an example for those at high risk. I’m sure the President’s doctor, Secret Service, ops, and the White House medical unit are giving very strict guidance to WHCA about the President’s movements and interactions he will have with others. Traditionally, for an event of this nature, the President doesn’t show up a minute before he has to, and is ushered into the Hilton likely through service corridors and elevators, and only takes the stage when he absolutely has to. If I were on Team Biden, I’d be telling WHCA we aren’t doing any backstage photos, handshakes, hugs, etc., to minimize his risk. But once he’s on stage it’s a fairly low risk environment for him. I think there’s wisdom to getting back to normal life and letting individuals make their own assessment about their risk.

Elliott: We are grateful for your generosity and time.

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