Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With "The Fight Of His Life" Author Chris Whipple; Interview With Pianist And Moscow Conservatory's Piano Department Former Chief Mikhail Voskresensky; Interview With Aspen Music Festival Composer And CEO Alan Fletcher; Interview With The Bulwark Editor-At-Large Charlie Sykes. Aired 1-2p ET

Aired January 19, 2023 - 13:00:00   ET




ANNOUNCER: This is CNN. More people get their news from CNN than any other news source.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. And welcome to AMANPOUR. Here is what's coming up.


CHRISS WHIPPLE, AUTHOR, "THE FIGHT OF HIS LIFE": I think he feels he has unfinished business. So, he is running, I think.


AMANPOUR: Predicting President Biden's next moves with an inside look at his first two years as president. Author Chris Whipple joins me with his

revealing look, "The Fight of His Life". Then.




AMANPOUR: The celebrated 87-year-old concert pianist who fled Putin's Russia. An intimate conversation with Mikhail Voskresensky, and composer,

Alan Fletcher, who helped bring him to the United States.

Plus, political commentator Charlie Sykes talks to Michel Martin about a divided Congress and whether moderate Republicans can hold firm against the

party's extremist ways.

Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

The 118th Congress is getting into full swing, and we are starting to see what the impact of a divided government looks like. GOP hard-liners,

Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, were given committee assignments. This, after they were tossed off committee's last term for incendiary

language and ideas. The alleged fabulist, George Santos, also got a committee assignment, despite growing calls for his resignation, even from

his own party.

All this, while the country moves full-steam ahead into a fight over the debt limit, risking a U.S. default that could have disastrous consequences

for the U.S. and the global economies. We'll have more on the future of divided government later in the program. But first, let us take a step back

with a revealing inside look at President Biden and his first two years in office.

Chris Whipple joins me from New York with his book, "The Fight of His Life", based on securing special access to the Biden administration. We

discussed the fascinating details he's amassed on the president who keeps confounding the pundits.


AMANPOUR: Chris Whipple, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: You have written the first, I think, inside look at the first two years of the Biden administration. You've had incredible access,

including with some of his most close associates. First, I want to start with something that post-date's the book and get your, you know, get your

take on it.

This business about the documents. Documents, documents, documents. With the new majority in Congress vowing to, you know, hold him accountable with

a special prosecutor or investigator now on it per the Justice Department. How much of a wound is this after a pretty good first two years, and even,

potentially, him maybe making a decision about another run?

WHIPPLE: Well, you know, Christiane, I think given what we now know, it's unlikely that this is any kind of legal problem, or anything that would

jeopardize his plan to run for re-election, which he, I think surely is going to do. It's a little bit surprising considering how, you know, this

is a pretty well-run White House underrun plane (ph), it's a tight ship. So, it's a little surprising.

But it's a political problem, not a legal one, I think. And it -- and the problem is it that it goes to the heart of Joe Biden's most valuable asset,

which is trust. You know, they've looked evasive, and disorganized, and it's not a good look. I think it may even jeopardize the ability of the

Department of Justice to bring a case against Donald Trump on the Mar-a- Lago documents.

AMANPOUR: You said you are sure he is going to declare for another run at the presidency, for 2024. What makes you so sure? Did you get tipped off?

WHIPPLE: I'm completely convinced that he's running. I mean, for one thing, just think about it, who was the last president to have walked away

from the Oval Office voluntarily? LBJ in 1968. When you get to that level, and Joe Biden is no exception, I think you do walk away from the

possibility of a second term. Joe Biden has either run for president, or thought about running for president every four years of -- for his entire

career. So - and I think he feels he has unfinished business. So, he is running, I think.


AMANPOUR: Look, you know, you say, and you drew a parallel with Johnson. Obviously, Johnson was in the midst of a terrible war. He knew that he

couldn't win. But here in this hand, you have a president who would be 82, the oldest ever to be -- to enter, you know, another term and many people

have wondered whether he's up to it.

WHIPPLE: Yes. Look, age is a legitimate issue, there's no doubt about it. And in my book, I tell the story about how prior to the inauguration in

2021, Ron Klain convened a Zoom call with former White House chiefs of staff. And Lyndon Johnson's former chief, Jim Jones, who is 82 years old,

was on that call. And his advice to Klain was, make sure that the president gets rest. Make sure that he has the stamina and the energy to do this.

Because he said, I recognize signs of age in him. I'm 82 years old. You know, I stumble going up the steps, I see it in Joe Biden. You have to

worry about this. Everybody around Joe Biden, by contrast, says that he's got plenty of energy and that he is firing on all cylinders.

AMANPOUR: So, firing on all cylinders. I mean, he clearly is when it comes to the Ukraine war. And amongst all his allies, and obviously amongst

Ukrainians, he's getting a lot of kudos. You write a lot about the process, first, identifying and predicting a Russian invasion and then dealing with

it. What stood out for you the most when you went back and got all their memories of what they did to, first and foremost, try to head off this

invasion by Russia?

WHIPPLE: Yes, I really do think, Christiane, that February 24, 2022 was the turning point of the Biden presidency, after a very rough first year

with the Afghanistan withdrawal that all of the problems with that, and being unable to pass his major legislation. This was the moment that Joe

Biden was born to face, apparently. I mean, he spent his whole career preparing for this kind of a challenge.

The intelligence was extraordinary. You know, I think that the intelligence community's ability to predict exactly what Putin had in mind rivaled the -

- their performance during the Cuban missile crisis. It was one of the CIA's finest hours. The, you know, NATO was -- the NATO leaders were

extremely skeptical. They didn't believe it. Biden and Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, and the rest of his team were persistent and kept telling

him, this is happening.

I write about a previously untold story about Kamala Harris meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the eve of the evasion when she said to him, look,

the Russians are coming, not only for Ukraine, but for you and your family, personally. Zelenskyy was skeptical. When he left, she turned to an aid and

said, that maybe the last time we see him alive. It's a -- the walk up to the invasion is a dramatic story.

AMANPOUR: It was really, really dramatic. And obviously we know, in the public that they broke the mold. Declassified sensitive information, made

it public, did all this stuff to make Putin and everybody know that they knew and they were -- they had eyes on.

WHIPPLE: You know, speaking of the intelligence. General Milley came to the Oval Office to brief Joe Biden on some of the crazy misinformation that

Putin and his allies were putting out in the walk-up to the war. You remember, they were fabricating phony assaults with dead bodies and all the


Joe Biden couldn't believe it. And he said, can we -- he said to Milley, can we put this out in public? Milley said, I can't, Mr. President, but you

can and Avril Haines can. And that's how that whole campaign of publicizing what Putin was up to got underway.

AMANPOUR: It really is incredible. I want to play a soundbite, this is President Biden last March, obviously after the war started when he went to

Warsaw, that is next door to Ukraine, it's played a key, key role. Throwaway line at the end of his speech caused a huge amount of

consternation. You probably remember it. Here it is.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. For free people refused to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness. We

will have a different future. A brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope, and light.


Of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibilities. For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.

AMANPOUR: I mean, so revealing. It might have been a throwaway line. He might have read it, I'm not sure. But it's absolutely, you know -- I mean,

it really tells a story. So, what do you think is the endgame? Obviously, it's not regime change by the United States, but is it? What Lloyd Austin

said, that they want to weaken Putin. That he can never do this again? Is it to defeat Putin, ASAP, on the battlefield so that, you know, they're

going to have some peace settlement and Putin will not be tempted to do this again? What is it?

WHIPPLE: Well, first of all, the -- you know, this man cannot remain in power line is a classic. I think it's going to go down with Ronald

Reagan's, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. And it was a moment of authenticity that, of course, everybody had their hair on fire when he said

it and tried to argue that it was a mistake. But I would argue with that.

You know, the endgame here, Christiane, I think is frightening to contemplate. I -- in addition to talking for two years to almost all of Joe

Biden's inner circle, I spent some time with Bill Burns, the CIA director. And we talked at length about this. Bill Burns believes, as does Joe Biden,

that this may be existential for Vladimir Putin. And it's hard to imagine him giving up on this grandiose notion that all of Ukraine is part of


And at one point, Bill Burns just mused out loud to me as we were in his office above Langley, above the campus at the CIA. And he said, you know,

now that he is in Scotts and the eastern provinces, I wonder if it's possible, he said, that Putin will try to cut a deal. And I said, you

really think it's possible that he can live with Volodymyr Zelenskyy? And he said, no. Not really. He said, this is existential for him and he's --

would probably only be a delay before he goes back for the rest of Ukraine.

The thing that keeps Joe Biden up at night is the prospect of nuclear confrontation with Russia. It's never far from his mind because this is

existential for Vladimir Putin and the opinion of Bill Burns, who knows Vladimir Putin better than anyone other than his inner circle.

So, I think this is something that really troubles Joe Biden. He thinks about it all the time. They don't like to talk about it out loud, but you

can be sure that war games are being conducted continually. And they are gaming now what they would do in the event that Vladimir Putin were to go

to that last resort.

AMANPOUR: Well, Putin of course knows that. And some call it, sort of, forcing a unilateral restraint on the west. I talked to President Zelenskyy

about all of this, and he doesn't believe it. He just does not believe it. And you could argue that the Ukrainians know Putin, you know, better than

anybody. But again, I realize that this is in, you know, top of mind all over the place.

So, let's go back to something that wasn't as noble as the U.S. and NATO's defense of democracy, the rule of law, human rights in Ukraine. And that

was literally the abandonment of Afghanistan. I mean, his first foreign policy act, President Biden just about was to double down on what Trump had

agreed with the Taliban, and handover, you know Afghanistan to the Taliban.

A lot has been written about it but I'd like to quote from your book, Bruce Riedel, who is a counterterrorism expert, the former CIA analyst, conducted

a study on Afghanistan options for Obama administration. Of course, Biden was in that administration. And here's what he told you, "Biden's right. We

can't beat the Taliban. But we'd produced a stalemate and it cost us very little, about 3,000 troops on the ground, a small expenditure in terms of

economic and military assistance. And we protected the vast bulk of the Afghan population from the kind of medieval theocracy that the Taliban was


WHIPPLE: Well, you know, Bruce Riedel had plenty of company, as you well know. Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley were also in that camp, along

with a lot of the foreign policy staffs and then they felt that it was a minimal investment of relatively -- of U.S. resources and troops for

something that was worthwhile.

But I think Joe Biden -- Joe Biden had decided well before he became president that he was done with Afghanistan.


At one point he was all in, you know, on a trip to the country some years ago. I mean, he was -- there was a famous scene in a classroom where a girl

stood up and confronted him and said, you cannot leave. And he said don't worry, darling, or words of that effect. We're not going to. He changed his


In fairness to Biden, I think the die was cast, and certainly a lot of experts I talked to agreed with me, many of whom had been in Vietnam. The

die was cast when Donald Trump set a deadline of May 1st for the departure of all the U.S. troops. From that day forward, it was -- awfully, it would

have been almost impossible to convince the Afghan government and armed forces that we were there to stay.

And I think that that -- that was -- that really hamstrung Biden to some extent. He pushed the deadline, as you know, out August 31st in the end.

And ultimately, Mark Milley wasn't able to convince Biden that it wasn't a recipe for endless war. Because after August 3rd, the day after, Milley

conceded to Biden, the day after the Taliban would have been, again, all in on assaulting U.S. forces and we would have to raise troop levels to say.

Anyway, that was the -- that was Milley -- that was Biden's argument, and Milley was -- couldn't talk him out.

AMANPOUR: You know, maybe historians will wonder in the future why it was a zero-some game, all or nothing. The Reidel formula for a small residual

force, you know, could've worked as many, many historians and national security officials believed.

But I want to ask you now to end this, to talk about the good and the unexpected that Biden has shown, and what you got from, again, Ron Klain,

chief of staff. He basically said, you know, he sent you this e-mail on election night of the midterms in 2022. Maybe we don't suck as much as

people thought. Like, maybe the nattering negatives who dumped to Politico were wrong.

And do you agree with him that the political press and the, you know, nattering nabobs of negativism, as someone else once quoted just got Biden


WHIPPLE: You just spilled Will Safire's --

AMANPOUR: Yes, Will Safire, exactly.


AMANPOUR: Got him wrong.


AMANPOUR: And he's proved them wrong all the time.

WHIPPLE: Yes. I think Joe Biden has been underestimated from time after time after time during his political career. God knows he was written off

as finished, dead politically, just before he won the primary with Jim Clyburn's endorsement, and went on to become president.

He was underestimated during his first year which was a rough year, particularly after the Afghanistan withdrawal and inability to pass Build

Back Better. But his presidency really revived after that. I -- again, I think the turning point was Ukraine, but shortly after that he had -- went

on a -- had a string of legislative successes that rivaled LBJ. And then ultimately defied the odds of the midterms, as you just said. And I think,

you know, Joe Biden now has the wind in his sails heading into a third year.

AMANPOUR: Let's see. Let's see what happens. Chris Whipple, thank you so much indeed. Author of "The Fight of His Life".

WHIPPLE: Thanks so much Christiane. Enjoyed it.


AMANPOUR: We shall see indeed.

Now, when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, a significant number of Russians from all walks of life denounced their home country and began plotting

their escape. Including the 87-year-old, hugely successful concert pianist, Mikhail Voskresensky.




AMANPOUR: Almost a nonagenarian now. He says it was not easy to get out. But ultimately, the American composer, Alan Fletcher, and his Aspen Music

Festival, opened its arms and welcomed him to the United States. The dynamic duo joined me from New York.


AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program Misha and Alan. Can I start with you, Misha? You've asked me to call Misha, that is your nickname, short for



What made you decide to leave your country? You're not political. You say your man of the arts. What was it that basically forced your hand?


personally what does it mean this horrible world war. So, when the war began in Russia, on the 24th of February, for me, it was no choice. I

understood that I don't want to take part in this criminal. So, I tried to call many -- to many of friends in every country in the west to ask to help


Unfortunately, mostly, even my former pupils, told me that they understood me. They want to help, but they have no any possibility to do this. And

only one my friend, Professor Yoheved Kaplinsky from Juilliard School in New York, told me that she will try to help me. And even next day after our

telephone talk, she called me and she told me that I am invited for a very well-known Aspen Musical Festival in United States. And Mr. Alan Fletcher,

who is close to me now, invites me to take part in this festival, in August on 22.

AMANPOUR: So, Alan Fletcher, let me ask you because it wasn't obvious, right. Misha is explaining how he couldn't get help for many reasons. But

including many American and European artist communities just don't want to deal with Russians right now. How hard was it to convince your institute to

take him and others. Walk me through that process.

ALAN FLETCHER, COMPOSER AND CEO, ASPEN MUSIC FESTIVAL: You know, we -- this was in the very first weeks after the invasion, and we were having

quite intense debate about Russian artists, without much agreements. But when Veda called me and said, this is the situation with Misha, I took it

to the executive committee of my board and they immediately agreed that this action to assist Misha in leaving Russia would be an extremely

important thing to do. So, it was quite easy as a decision.

AMANPOUR: I wonder, Misha, both of you what you make of it because, you know, building on that, the Russian-German pianist, Igor Levit, he told

CBS, it's an absolute insanity to strip concerts away from young Russian musicians just because they're afraid. Alan, you know, we're nearly a year

into this war now, what do you think of this, you know, initial banning of so many Russians, and not just artist, but sports people and the like over

the last 10 months?

FLETCHER: Well, I'm going to leave sports aside --


FLETCHER: -- because I think the sports culture issue is a little different. But to me, a very few artists who are extremely associated with

Putin directly, I can understand not inviting them. But we went ahead with invitations to Russian born artists last summer, and we had Russian born

students, because precisely we decided the possibility of cultural diplomacy would be more important than to make purely symbolic stance. But

to help Misha was not symbolic. It was a very real thing that we could do.

AMANPOUR: So, let me get back to your personal story, Misha. And I want to play a little clip of your last concert in Moscow, it's from Mozart,

"Fantasia No. 2". We're going to play a clip.




AMANPOUR: It's a really beautiful. But I wonder, had you made the decision -- as you were playing, had you made the decision then to leave, and what

were you feeling when you were playing that concert?


VOSKRESENSKY: It was 20th of May, 2022. And I already knew that I must leave the country because it was already the time of war. And I thought

that if I stay in Russia, indirectly I am -- I participate in this criminal war. So, I need to make something against it. What I could do? I could only

to run away. Therefore, for me, it was only one choice.

AMANPOUR: And what were you feeling, Misha, as you knew you had made that choice, and you were playing for the last time. The people who are

listening to you and watching you did not know that you would not be back.

VOSKRESENSKY: Well, when I played, I also did not think that I will not be back. My thoughts was very set. Of course, it was very difficult decision

because I left my big family. I have nine grandchildren. and four great- grandchildren, and they still live in Moscow, they have many problems. So, for me, this decision was very difficult. It is a tragedy. It is not

travel. It is not adventure. It is a real changing of the life.


VOSKRESENSKY: And I thought that maybe, if I will perform in the United States or in another country in the west, I can express my protests by my

music, by my performance. And I hope that it will be.

AMANPOUR: Well, that's then -- your -- it's in your -- the ball's in your court. Well, the Mozart is in your court now, Alan, then if he wants to

keep protesting with his music. But as yet, I don't think he's received the work permits. Tell me, again, the blocks that are in Misha's way in the


FLETCHER: Well, I could just say, you know, as much as we all are glad to have helped the bravery that Misha his family have shown is such an example

for us all. It was difficult. There was a worldwide difficulty in getting the 01 visas, which are for extraordinary artists. And Misha had to wait

many weeks in Europe to get that approval.

We worked through our senator in Colorado, John Hickenlooper, who is extremely helpful in getting through that. But then, the work

authorization, which just came through recently. So, Misha does in fact -- he just showed me the card, which is a fantastic milestone.

AMANPOUR: So, Misha, you've got your work authorization now. And did you tell, did you discuss this with the conservatory, your colleagues and the

Moscow Conservatory? What did they say when you started telling them that you were against the war?

VOSKRESENSKY: You know that I did not have any word to Moscow Conservatory, because if I would tell them that I want to flee, they will

not permit me. They could not put -- stop on the border. So, I asked for the -- some holiday, some creative holiday, which is possible to have. And

our actor permit me to have one year holiday in Moscow Conservatory.

AMANPOUR: OK. You didn't tell your colleagues that you wanted to leave. But at the beginning of the war, what did you discuss with them about the

war? Did you have discussions and how did they feel?

VOSKRESENSKY: Of course, I discussed with many, many of my colleagues. And I expressed my horror, my protests. But not everybody supported me. And it

was also one drop to my decision to leave. Because some people who are very intelligence and who are very good pianists, good colleagues, they told me,

you know that I see the photo of killed children in Donbas. And I told them, ye, of course. It is war. Of course, during the war, could be many


But the reason who began, this is very important. Between Russian people, I am sure that mostly, nobody supports war -- the war.


Mostly. But some, maybe 40 percent, maybe 30 percent, I don't know, they support. Because propaganda is very high.

AMANPOUR: Alan, what do you think about, you know, you're almost in the middle of something that is a throwback to the cold war. I mean, you know,

an artist. Artist who is defecting from a country that he protests their politics. Americas got this relationship now, and is completely involved in

trying to help Ukraine. What is it like for you? What made you want to reach out, and kind of got involved in your own way?

FLETCHER: While we did feel from the start that it was a chance to make a statement against the war, against the invasion, and against those plans of

the government of Russia by helping one of the most eminent musicians and in of Russia to leave in protest. It was very unusual for a musician, like

myself, to suddenly be involved in spy craft and sorting out which embassy would be best. Would Belgrade work? Would Warsaw be better?

In the end, Misha and his family went to Naples, in Italy, to wait for the visa. But not to be light hearted about it, but during this period I've

complete uncertainty whether it would work or not. We were doing things like watching the third man, and seeing ourselves as a part of this genuine

spy drama.

AMANPOUR: And of course, that's a film, that's a real throwback to that era. So, that's really funny to hear you talk about that.

Misha, I want to ask you something that goes to the heart of your international career. Many years ago, when it was still the Soviet Union,

you were going to come abroad, you were going to come, I think to the United States, and you were going to give some concerts. And the KGB

contacted you. What did they want from you?


AMANPOUR: And what happened?

VOSKRESENSKY: When I have proposal to collaborate with KGB, I immediately understood that I cannot do it. It was in 1963. I was a very young man. I

had invitation to the United States to play concerts. And I understood that I cannot accept this proposal. They spoke very politely. They spoke that my

life will be wonderful. They spoke that I can only -- to help my homeland against the surrounding enemies. And I told them, do you want me to be a

spy? No, no. Of course, no. But maybe sometimes you will send -- you will take some letter.

So, I didn't take any letters. And in any case, I refused. How did I do it? I called to this man. I told, you know, that I am a musician. All musicians

are very emotional people. I can make a mistake. And it will be not good for my country. So, I refused. After this, the talk was interrupted, and my

career was interrupted also.

AMANPOUR: Wow. It's really incredible. That's an incredible story, isn't it, Alan?


AMANPOUR: And now he's got his American career, all these years later. Thanks to you all.


VOSKRESENSKY: It is not too late.

AMANPOUR: Never too late. Thank you both very, very much for joining us. Alan and Misha, thank you very much indeed.

FLETCHER: Thank you, Christiane.

VOSKRESENSKY: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: A new lease on life for an incredible talent.

Turning to China and its raging battle with COVID following the end of Beijing's strict policies. The reality of this reversal is coming to light

as the nation adjust to life without relentless COVID testings and lockdowns. With the Lunar New Year holiday on the way, the Chinese

government is wary of the mass travel ahead. Correspondent Ivan Watson has that story.


IVAN WATSON, CNN, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A population on the move.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Attention, please.

WATSON (voiceover): After three years of restrictions due to their government's war on COVID, Chinese can finally travel again just in time

for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. In pre-pandemic times, this was described as the world's largest annual human migration.

I haven't been home in three years, says this man at the main Beijing train station.

Millions of Chinese people are traveling as COVID-19 spreads out of control.


WATSON (on camera): Chinese officials say COVID infections have passed their peak in many parts of the country. But there are clearly still

concerns about the scale of the outbreak. For example, here in Hong Kong, authorities require all of these travelers arriving on high-speed trains

from Mainland China to get negative COVID tests first, before they can cross the border.

WATSON (voiceover): Last month, Beijing abruptly scrapped its strict zero COVID policy, the ensuing surge of sick people putting a strain on

hospitals and health workers. Several social media videos showed nurses sick with COVID collapsing on the job.

I felt unwell, says this nurse in Shandong. It had been a week that I had COVID-19 until that day when I finally collapsed.

Over the weekend, health officials who once prided themselves on keeping COVID out of China abruptly raised the COVID death toll since early

December from several dozen COVID deaths to nearly 60,000 people killed by COVID. But the Official U-turn on COVID has had other unintended


At a factory in Chongqing workers pelted police with what appeared to be boxes of COVID tests. Some biotech companies, withholding salaries or

laying off workers after the government suddenly stopped demanding the population take millions of COVID tests a day.

GEORGE MAGNUS, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD CHINA CENTER: The implementation of zero-COVID and the abrupt and unprepared manner in which

it was abandoned. I mean, speaks to a chronic governance failure.

WATSON (voiceover): One of China's richest provinces Guangdong spent around $22 billion over three years on pandemic prevention.

MAGNUS: A lot of these local governments are highly indebted. They've got big cash flow problems. This is a big problem that the central government

and local governments will have to sort out in this coming decade, but COVID just kind of made it worse, really.

WATSON (voiceover): For now, uncertainty over public health and government finances has done little to dampen a palpable sense of excitement.

Understandable as Chinese emerged from pandemic lockdown to celebrate the year of the rabbit, the biggest holiday of the year.


AMANPOUR: Ivan Watson reporting there.

Returning to the state of U.S. politics as the Republican majority navigates a narrowly divided House and its own divided party. With extreme

election deniers assigned to key committees this week, is there a place for pragmatic Republicans in this Congress? Charlie Sykes, a conservative

commenter, an editor-at-large of the political website, "The Bulwark" joins Michel Martin to break down the current GOP landscape.



Charlie Sykes, thanks so much for talking with us.


MARTIN: So, let's talk about where we are now. We're two years after the anniversary of the mob attack on the Capitol.

SYKES: Right.

MARTIN: The intention of which was to, you know, essentially overthrow the government, OK.


MARTIN: You know, the Republicans took control of the house.

SYKES: Yes, they did.

MELVIN: They did after a lot of toing-and-froing, eventually, kind of, settle on Kevin McCarthy as their leader. But a lot of people who had been

considered, you know -- I don't know how to say it, like, other than fringe players in previous Congresses have now been given positions of

responsibility. And I just wonder how you put all that together. When you look at the totality of that, what do you see?

SYKES: Well, I mean, that last point you made, I think is what is so crucial. Is the way in which the fringe has become mainstream. Look, you've

always had cranks and cracked pots in the conservative movement, they've always been at the far reaches of the fever swamp. What's really changed is

that now you have figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, who are not only in the mainstream, but are actually playing major roles in the

House of Representatives.

So, you know, the election was certainly not as bad as I think a lot of people believed. But let's be honest, here's the reality check, even though

many of the worst election deniers were defeated, and many of the most intense MAGA superstars went down to defeat. The reality is that the

Republicans did take control of the house. They do control the gavels. They do control the subpoenas -- subpoena power, and as we have seen with the

election of Kevin McCarthy.

The most fringe elements of the party are now in control. They now dominate. So, I think the January 6th should have been the inflection point

where everybody in the Republican Party should have looked at another and said, OK, this is crazy. This is insane. This is clearly not what we stand

for. It is not conservative to try to overthrow the government and then to take the off ramp.

Instead, two years afterwards, the party that went along with many of the big lies and refused to acknowledge Joe Biden's victory is now in charge.


And many of those committees in the House of Representatives are now run by people who were deeply involved in January 6th or who voted not to certify

the election. So, there is some good news. But to think that somehow the crisis has passed, or that the fever has broken, I think would be highly--

would be extremely naive.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is? How do you think that happened? Like, what happened?

SYKES: Well, you know, it happened gradually and then all at once, you know. The biggest mistake, and the thing that I most regret, of course, is

the fact that we did ignore the extremist elements in the party in part because I think that there was the complacency that these were, you know,

these were like your drunken bigoted uncle at Thanksgiving. You could roll your eyes, but that somehow the sane center would prevail. We regarded this

as, sort of, a recessive gene. Well, it turned out this recessive gene is dominant.

But the point you just made is really significant. Because as recently as 2019, the Republicans did understand there were still red lines and there

were needs to -- there was a need to police themselves. So, Steve King was flirting with white supremacy in 2019, well into the Trump-era. And

Republicans hesitated only briefly before saying, no, this is not who we are. We are going to expel him from the committee. And he was really,

eventually, consigned to political oblivion.

Now, fast forward to today where you have people who have consorted with white supremacists, like Paul Gosar, who have engaged in conspiracy

theories and, you know, antisemitic fantasies about Jewish space lasers, like Marjorie Taylor Greene. And they are not only not being exiled, they

are being promoted and put into these key positions.

So, clearly something has changed. And part of this has been the acceleration of the things that I wrote back in 2016. The growth of an

alternative reality universe, a right-wing mini-ecosystem. The entertainment wing of the Republican Party, which has clearly become

dominant. And it's changed all of the incentive structure.

So, it used to be that there was -- you know, there was a leadership in the party that could say, look, this is inappropriate behavior and you need to

stop that. Well, there is no leadership structure. There is no establishment that has that kind of control. Right now, the perpetual

outrage machines of many of these third-party groups are much more dominant in terms of the money they can raise, the attention they can give, and the

kind of celebrity.

So, Marjorie Taylor Greene, rather than being cast out can, like Steve King, can go on Fox News. She can go on Newsmax or OAN, and she can turn to

small donor -- small donors and raise millions of dollars. And this is the source of her power right now. So, this is one of the reasons why someone

like a Kevin McCarthy has to negotiate and give away so much of his power. That's why he needs to appease the crazies in his caucus because the locust

of power and money and celebrity has continued to shift drastically and dramatically in the era of Trump.

MARTIN: Well, why don't people who have a more, sort of, demonstrated interest in governing step forward? It's -- it would seem that they, as a

group, could exert some influence?

SYKES: Well, why haven't they done it over the last five or six years? I mean, that's been the story of the Republican Party. Look, there are still

moderates in the House of Representative and in the Republican Party. But the problem is, they continue to empower the extremes. They will not go to

the mat for their principles the way that the freedom caucus was willing to go to the mat for their caucus.

So -- I mean, that's the real question. Well, yes, there are moderates but when will they take a stand. Now, to take a stand in this particular

conference risks political oblivion. You ask, you know, why won't they -- you know, why won't they take governing seriously? Well, does that mean

working with Democrats? Does that mean making compromises? If they do, they run the risk of following Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney into retirement,

that's the way that they conceptualize that. Because the pressure to go along, to get along is so intense.

So, I think this is going to be one of the most important things to watch. Because there are quite a few members of this Republican conference that

represent districts that were won by Joe Biden. Who ran as centrist, who ran as moderates. But will it matter in the end? Will they, for example,

break with the leadership if it looks like the Republicans are going to take the country over the brink on not raising the debt ceiling?

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

SYKES: Will they stand up against some of the most extreme legislation? So far, as you just pointed out, they haven't done it.


And this has been the story going back, frankly to Paul Ryan's speakership. Paul Ryan was certainly not a Trumpist, but ultimately, he decided that he

was going to make that fusty and bargained with Trumpism. And since that moment, that's been the story for the vast majority of Republicans in

elected office.

MARTIN: So, you said an early test is the debt ceiling --


MARTIN: -- dilemma. The fact is the party's -- the White House have to agree on what happens next, or the U.S. could default.


MARTIN: I mean, that sounds like a remarkable thing for the world's largest economy to even, sort of, consider.

SYKES: Right.

MARTIN: But the -- I don't know how to describe it. You know, the hardliners, as it were, are demanding some severe, you know, cuts in

spending. You know, it's interesting, given such a narrow majority in one house of the Congress, but to be demanding some really, sort of, drastic

policy in you know, changes, but they are.

SYKES: Yes, they are.

MARTIN: And so, you know, how should the other side response to that or what would you like to see?

SYKES: Well, look, people ought to have no illusions that defaulting on the debt would be catastrophic. It would be catastrophic for the economy,

for the country, for the markets. It might create a global financial crisis. It would shut down the federal government.

And as I wrote earlier this week, I don't think there's anything less conservative than reneging on your debt or shutting down the government

that you are entrusted to keep running, and yet that's where we are here. Now, this is not a new idea.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

SYKES: I mean, Republicans have been flirting with this since 2011. But back in -- and that did a lot of damage. But remember that back then,

saner, calmer heads prevailed. I'm not sure that's going to happen this time because I think this is going to be the litmus test. The entire media

ecosystem on the right will be geared out to put pressure on Republicans to not compromise. Kevin McCarthy may have made concessions that make

compromise impossible. We don't know all the things that he gave away. But we know that he made promises to the freedom caucus.

My greatest fear is that any Republican that wants to be grown-up, wants to do the responsible thing will be labeled a traitor, a cock (ph), a rhino

(ph). And that if they were to, you know, sign on to a motion of discharge or any sort of a deal with the Biden White House, that they would be

immediately targeted by fellow Republicans. It would guarantee that they would have a primary. That voting to compromise with the Biden White House

would have the same political implications of voting to impeach Donald Trump. We know how Republicans reacted to all of that.

So, then the question is, well, how can we get through all of this? And we don't know. This is also a measure of how radicalized the Republican Party

has gotten. And even though they didn't do well in the midterms, the reality is, they control the House. They can -- they cannot pass anything

as long as Joe Biden's in the White House, and Democrats control the Senate. But they can do a great deal of damage, and that's the thing to

keep your eye on.

I mean, a lot of what you were going to see, they'll do a lot of investigations, there'll be a lot of performative bills passed to throw red

meat to the base. But the real meat of this is that the main event, the 2023 is going to be, will they crashed the economy? Will they shut the

government down? And I have to tell you, I'm not optimistic.

MARTIN: You know, if they were -- if that were to occur, these would be real world consequences that people -- you couldn't just necessarily

explain away with a lot of tweets, and you know, even with -- sort of, a combined, you know, power of the conservative media universe. You can't

explain away your 401(k) tanking. You can't explain away your, you know -- you know, all of the things --

SYKES: Right.

MARTIN: -- that people would experience. How would people react to that? I mean, do you think that that kind of reality check might be enough to get

people to take their public responsibilities more seriously?

SYKES: Well, I hope so. The problem of the Republican Party right now is not just the elected officials. In fact, the problem is the voters who are

sending these kinds of people to Washington. And as long as the Republican primary voter likes this sort of thing, wants the chaos, wants to burn it

all down, that is what they will get. But this will be the ultimate reality test. And it's one of the reasons why politicians, you know, with all of

the -- you know, sound and the fury ultimately never actually pull the trigger on defaulting on the debt because everybody knows it would be


But in a game of political, fiscal, chicken (ph) like this, what if they don't swerve? What if it does lead to a crash. But it will be a political

reality check.


Look, this is also where, I think, the Republican Party faces a huge problem in 2023. Because they are going to be the party that is going to

endanger the economy in order to have massive spending cuts for programs that are quite popular even among Republicans. I mean, with all of this,

you know, born again fiscal conservatism -- in which, by the way, they didn't care about during the Trump years when we get trillions of dollars

to the debt.

But all this born-again fiscal conservatism ignores the fact that the public -- even Republican voters do not want to cut social security. They

don't want to cut Medicare. Many of these other programs have large constituency. And yet, this is what the Republicans are holding the country

hostage for. So, that's a problem.

The other problem is that because Kevin McCarthy has made all of these bargains, and these deals, and these surrenders. The public face of the

Republican Party is going to be people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar and George Santos. And many of the other people who are -- you know,

when Americans finally tune in and say, who are these people? Who is running the country? What does the Republican Party stand for?

Instead of putting forward a rational and reasonable face, what is Kevin McCarthy's party going to look like six months from now and nine months

from now? It is -- it's a bizarre moment that we've been leading to for, I'm afraid, quite some time now. But it's going to all come to ahead, I

think, sometime this year.

MARTIN: I am curious though about Mitch McConnell. What role, do you think, that the Senate Republican leader is playing right now and will be

playing? I mean, I will say that President Biden has made it clear that he is going to return to certain norms.


MARTIN: That maybe not seem like a big deal outside of Washington.


MARTIN: But inviting members of the other party to a state dinner, for example --

SYKES: Right.

MARTIN: The prior administration completely ignored that custom.


MARTIN: And in his initial state dinners, the president has made it -- you know, has made sure to invite people from both political parties. He

actually appeared with the Senate Republican leader at an event.


MARTIN: He's appeared with Ron DeSantis, for example, the governor of Florida.

SYKES: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: He's appeared with the governor of Texas. I think I'm more interested in what you make of Mitch McConnell's role in this because

President Biden has made it clear that that's what he's going to try to do. He's going to try to model the behavior he wants to see, whether people

like it or not.


MARTIN: And what about mitch McConnell?

SYKES: You know, I think the relationship between Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell, and Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy is going to be one of the

most fascinating things to watch because McConnell's, you know, all out of bleach to give when it comes to the Donald Trump. I think -- you know,

Donald Trump continues to attack him, you know, throws out, tosses out racial slurs about his wife. So, Mitch McConnell has a completely different

relationship to both to governance and to the other parties.

So, there's going to be a triangulation. I mean, I think that one of the most interesting moments of the year, so far, was when the House was going

through all of those failed votes to elect Kevin McCarthy. When the House Republicans were incomplete disarray. And where was Mitch McConnell? He was

down in Kentucky with Joe Biden at a bipartisan infrastructure meeting. I mean, that was the signal that he wanted to distance himself from that.

That he was playing a different game.

So -- but Mitch McConnell, what he wants to be, can be, you know, a world- class obstructionist. But maybe he'll play a different role. We don't know. But if you're Joe Biden, it's going to be much easier to deal with Mitch

McConnell than it is with Kevin McCarthy.

I would love to be a fly on the wall to hear the conversations between Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, especially when Kevin McCarthy has to

admit that, hey, you know, I would like to do this. But you know, I've given away all of my power. I can't do anything. I am a completely hollow

man when it comes to being speaker. That's going to be interesting.

MARTIN: Do you have any sympathy for Kevin McCarthy?

SYKES: I have literally no sympathy for Kevin McCarthy. I mean, Kevin McCarthy basically has put his own personal ambition and vanity ahead of

the country. And I think that that's one of the cardinal political sins. Kevin McCarthy decided that he wanted to be speaker. He wanted to have that

portrait. He wanted to have that gavel. So much that he was willing to make himself, his party, and the entire House of Representatives hostage to the

least responsible, most reckless members of that party.

So, no, I don't. He weakened himself. He humiliated himself. And for what? We're going to see how long that lasts.

MARTIN: Uh-huh. Charlie Sykes, thank you so much for talking with us.

SYKES: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: That's it for now. Remember, you can always catch us online, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on our podcast. Thanks for watching, and

goodbye from London.