In conversation with Jon Sopel, Former BBC North America editor

In conversation with Jon Sopel, Former BBC North America editor

Jon Sopel, former BBC North America Editor, joined Tortoise Editor James Harding and Tulchan guests to discuss the war in Ukraine, US foreign policy, whether Trump will run again and the purpose of journalism in an age of partisan politics.

16.03.22

The US response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – with economic sanctions rather than muscular power – shows that caution is a continuity from the Trump years.

  • Everyone thought Biden’s election victory would bring a handbrake turn on US foreign policy compared to Trump – but there’s a streak of isolationism in Biden too, Sopel said. This was clearly on display in the decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan and is on display again now.
  • The difference is that “If Donald Trump had been president now, the invasion would have happened, but it would have been an open door policy to have tried to thwart the ambitions of Vladimir Putin under Donald Trump,” Sopel said. Trump never criticised Putin; he trusted him more than his own intelligence services (as seen in Helsinki) and was somewhat in awe of Putin’s “tough guy” approach.

The war in Ukraine may force the US to shift its approach to Europe – if Putin’s atrocities become even more egregious.

  • There’s an even longer line of continuity between US presidents – “from Obama to Trump to Biden” in the idea that America should focus on Asia, and Europe should look after itself. America’s strategy has been to ask Russia to stop its aggression, but not to make it.
  • This war may expose the limits of that approach – if Putin commits an atrocity so egregious that it galvanises the US population. Republicans said Ukraine was full of gangsters, but Americans now see clearly that Putin’s Russia is the threat. The Republicans have to get back on board.

Nobody knows what the end-game will be – but it is likely to be bad for Putin.

  • The US doesn’t know how to read Putin. “It is hard to see what the ideology [of Putin] is, apart from this fierce nationalism,” and the idea Ukraine shouldn’t exist,” said Sopel. People are afraid that if they face Putin down, he will blow everything up. “Nobody can see what the end game looks like, what the exit ramp is for Putin to get himself off the hook that he now seems to be firmly attached to,” said Sopel.
  • The war is going to be economically painful for Russians and Americans. Putin likely thinks that in this “arm wrestle” it is Russians who can stand more pain – because as a nation they are more familiar with it. That may be true for the everyday citizen. But the elite, who are used to sending their kids to UK private schools and going skiing in Courcheval will start to question if they really want to go back to the Cold War.

In US politics: if Trump isn’t running in 2024, it will be someone Trumpian.

  • Trump’s poll ratings are down and people are “prising themselves away” from the narrative that the election was stolen and that January 6 rioters should be pardoned. He also can’t let go of the last election (something that never wins the next one). However, he still has a command over the Maga grassroots and 50-60 per cent of Trump voters (35 million people) do still believe the election was stolen.
  • Others to watch include: Mike Pence, who is being openly critical of Trump and spending big in key districts; Mike Pompeo, who has lost 4-5 stone in weight. He’s either seriously ill or he’s running, Sopel said; and Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, who is really annoying Trump. “The fact that Ron de Santis is really irking [Trump] suggests that he is a potential danger,” Sopel said.
  • Investigations into Fulton County (where Trump asked the governor to find him 11,000 votes) and the January 6 commission could stop Trump running. If he does run on the “stolen election” narrative, he will unite swathes of society against him. “I don’t see how you stop Trump getting the nomination but I struggle to see how he wins,” Sopel said.

There isn’t a clear choice for the Democrats, either.

  • The job numbers look good for Biden, and the Russian invasion has given him a purposefulness that he was missing – but he is just so old. The slips and missteps are getting worse. His great campaigning achievement in the pandemic election was that he was in his basement in Wilmington – he can’t repeat that, and he can’t fire up the crowds as he would need to.
  • There is a degree of misogyny in the anti-Kamala Harris feeling – the idea in Washington that “she’s too ambitious”. However, her office is said to be dysfunctional, and she has been weak at setting out what she wants to achieve.
  • The one to watch is Pete Buttigieg. He could sit out the next seven presidential elections, run in 2052 and still be younger than Joe Biden was when he ran in 2020. But he is also “Mr Bountiful” – as Secretary of Transport he is benefitting from the recent infrastructure spending commitments, travelling around the country, with a chequebook to pay for new railway lines, roads and bridges. He can tell cities: “Look at what we are re-building.” Is America ready for a gay president who is married, took paternity leave when he adopted a child though? “I don’t know,” Sopel said.

Impartiality in news is a principle that should be fought for and defended.

  • In a digital age, journalists can reach audiences in new and exciting ways. “Great podcasts can come from anywhere and it doesn’t need to have big branding,” Sopel said.
  • There’s never been a more difficult or a more important time to be a journalist and to tell compelling stories of truth, “because we see what happens when falsehood reigns,” Sopel said. One need only look at Russia, and the lies Putin is telling people about the war.