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Politics chat: U.S. troops could go to help Ukraine; Black woman may replace Breyer

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We're entering another week with the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine remaining a very real possibility. On Friday, President Biden said he'd move U.S. troops to NATO allies in Eastern Europe, with 8,500 troops being put on alert. As he weighs his options with Russia, the president is also focused on trying to get his messaging back on track with voters in a midterm election year, which is no easy task. But news of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's eminent retirement gave the White House a welcome change of subject and the opportunity for the president to deliver on a campaign promise.

White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe joins us now to talk about all of this. Hello.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

SUMMERS: All right. Let's start with Ukraine and Russia. The president is still facing a lot of pressure over the Russian buildup of troops on Ukraine's border. What is the White House saying about this now, and what are you looking for as we look ahead to next week?

RASCOE: Well, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday that he doesn't think that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade at this point, but Russia has gathered enough forces and equipment to have multiple options regarding invasion or other provocative actions. Austin also said that conflict is not inevitable and that there is still time for diplomacy. Biden will meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday. Biden has been talking to NATO's allies repeatedly, trying to put forward this united front. There was a call last week with European leaders saying that they stand ready to take serious action on sanctions if Russia does move ahead with another invasion. Biden has to make sure that he has everyone on the same page, and he's also reassuring Ukraine that no decisions will be made without them.

SUMMERS: All right, so looking stateside here, the president traveled to Pennsylvania last week to promote his infrastructure package. He has said that he wants to spend more time traveling the country, talking to people. But where is he headed next? Do you know? And what is he trying to focus on as he looks forward?

RASCOE: Well, he's headed to New York on Thursday, and he's going to be meeting with New York's new mayor, Eric Adams. He's going to be there to talk about crime and supporting police and really about trying to get gun violence under control. Part of that will be federal efforts to combat gun traffickers. At the same time, the White - a White House official says that an executive order on policing and some type of policing reform is in the works.

SUMMERS: And the White House is also focused on selecting a new Supreme Court justice, something that always gets a lot of attention here in Washington. What can you tell us about how the White House is approaching this decision, given the court's strong conservative majority?

RASCOE: You know, this is a big deal. Yeah, even though it won't change the ideological makeup of the court, the stakes are always high with the Supreme Court. During the campaign, Biden pledged to place a Black woman on the Supreme Court, and he has made clear that he plans to stick to that promise. My colleague Scott Detrow is reporting that the White House is considering a broad range of candidates for the position, but all are experienced and relatively younger than Breyer, who is in his 80s. The front-runners include federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and California Supreme Court Justice Leandra Kruger. There are others who are also being reviewed. Biden has said that he will consult with the vice president, scholars and lawyers and members of both parties about potential picks.

SUMMERS: Ayesha, Democrats have those slim majorities on Capitol Hill. Are they concerned about this getting held up in Congress? And what type of timeline are we talking about here?

RASCOE: Well, so Biden says that he wants to make a decision on who he's going to nominate by the end of February. That will allow him to talk about this in his State of the Union address. In the Senate, Democrats are looking to push this through in about a month, which is about the time that it took for Amy Coney Barrett's nomination that Republicans pushed through. You know, right now it's looking like they...

SUMMERS: OK.

RASCOE: ...As long as they make the right choice, they will be able to get someone through 'cause they have 50 votes in the Senate.

SUMMERS: All right, Ayesha. That's NPR's White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe. Thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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