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Politics chat: VP Harris reassures European leaders about Trump's NATO remarks

DON GONYEA, HOST:

What is the future of U.S. leadership across the globe? It's a question on the minds of U.S. allies, raised again after comments last week from former President Donald Trump, who said he wouldn't defend some NATO countries from Russian aggression. The Biden administration is trying to reassure allies about where the U.S. stands. On Friday, after learning about the death in prison of Alexei Navalny, the opposition critic known for exposing corruption among Russia's ruling class, President Joe Biden said there's no mystery over who was to blame.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. Putin is responsible. What has happened to Navalny is yet more proof of Putin's brutality. No one should be fooled - not in Russia, not at home, not anywhere in the world.

GONYEA: Biden says there's an important message in Navalny's death for Congress and also for the November presidential election. Joining me now to talk about this, NPR's White House correspondent, Asma Khalid. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning, Don.

GONYEA: So tell me about where you were when we learned that Navalny had died.

KHALID: Yeah. So I was in Munich. We were there for the past few days with Vice President Harris, who was leading the U.S. delegation to the annual Munich Security Conference. It's this big gathering of world leaders, and it's held in this elaborate old ballroom. You have a bunch of diplomats jammed in there together.

And as the vice president was delivering her remarks, Navalny's wife, Yulia, was there in the room. And, in fact, Don, in this sort of dramatic surprise, right after the vice president spoke, Navalny's wife took the stage. And genuinely, Don, it was probably one of the most powerful moments I have witnessed in my journalism career. She was incredibly poised. The audience was riveted on every word she was saying. She called on the international community to defeat the - this evil, this Russian regime.

GONYEA: And how did that moment and the news of Navalny's death affect the message Vice President Harris had for leaders in the room?

KHALID: She used it to underscore what she had to say about U.S. support for Ukraine and U.S. support, more broadly, for NATO. You know, she was there at this moment where there's a lot of anxiety from European leaders about the longevity of the U.S. relationship with Europe. One of the leaders she met with was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Yesterday, he told us that he has a lot riding on getting more aid from the United States.

The Senate has approved a bill that would provide billions of dollars of additional funding for Ukraine, but it is not clear if and, frankly, even when the House will approve such a deal. Former President Donald Trump opposes it, and he is, of course, the front-runner in the Republican presidential nomination race. The vice president said that there is no backup plan to this aid bill. She said, this is, quote, "only plan A."

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: And we are unwavering, and that has nothing to do with an election cycle. It has to do with who we are and what kind of country we want to be - one that stands with our friends.

KHALID: And I should also mention, yesterday, President Biden spoke to President Zelenskyy again and told him he was confident the U.S. would get military aid to Ukraine. But again, it's not clear how that's going to happen at the moment in Congress.

GONYEA: Asma, you and I - we both cover elections. And while foreign policy is, of course, very important, it's not always a priority when people vote. So what's your sense of whether this could become a bigger election issue this year?

KHALID: You're right. It is not a typically front-of-mind issue like the economy, but the Biden campaign appears to be trying to make it into one. It is feeding, I think, broadly into their strategy of trying to cast Donald Trump as someone who is dangerous for democracy, as someone who is unpredictable. And they dropped a new ad this week with Trump's comments about NATO. You know, essentially, he has said a few times recently that if Russia attacked a U.S. ally that wasn't spending enough on defense, he would not live up to the NATO commitment to protect that ally. The campaign believes that this kind of message could resonate in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or even Michigan.

GONYEA: All right. That's NPR's White House correspondent, Asma Khalid. Asma, it's always a pleasure.

KHALID: Always good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.