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News brief: Georgia primaries, Biden in Japan, Russia-Ukraine war

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're finding out a lot this month about how much Donald Trump still dominates the Republican Party.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A series of Republican primaries show the power of Trump's endorsement. It also shows how many voters want to embrace Trump's lies about the 2020 election. Today's primary in Georgia is especially revealing. The sitting governor supported Trump but affirmed the reality that the former president lost in 2020. His main challenger makes a bid for office by denying the facts.

INSKEEP: Politics reporter Sam Gringlas of WABE in Atlanta is covering this story. Sam, good morning.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Brian Kemp, the governor, versus David Perdue, a one-time senator. How did this become a test of Trump's power?

GRINGLAS: All right. Well, the first thing you need to know is that Perdue is running with Trump's support, and it was Trump who urged Perdue to take on Kemp in the first place. Now, it wasn't always this way. Trump actually endorsed Kemp in 2018. But then the 2020 election happened, and Trump says Kemp didn't help him overturn the election results in Georgia, and so Trump has spent the last year or so just bashing Kemp at every turn. And Perdue has basically premised his whole campaign on this false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. I mean, just listen to literally his first words at a debate last month.

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DAVID PERDUE: First off, folks, let me be very clear tonight - the election in 2020 was rigged and stolen.

GRINGLAS: And Trump has endorsed primary candidates up and down the ballot who are peddling these same claims.

INSKEEP: How much of an effect is Trump having in Georgia?

GRINGLAS: Well, we're starting to see a few hints. Kemp has been leading Perdue in the polls. Perdue's fundraising and spending have dried up. And the reality is that Kemp is an incumbent governor who is popular with conservatives. He's been leaning into that record and is kind of looking beyond Perdue and 2020 to a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams this fall. There's also this line that Kemp uses at a lot of campaign events. He repeated it again at a rally last night with former Vice President Mike Pence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN KEMP: This family has been getting up every single day to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor or the next president.

(CHEERING)

GRINGLAS: You know, I've met voters who still like Trump and who believe the election was stolen in 2020, but they just don't blame Kemp for that, and so they aren't swayed by Trump's endorsement. Then I've also met people who voted for Trump but say they are very ready to move on. They worry that relitigating the 2020 election is just holding the party back. So this primary is not only a test of whether Trump is still the most important player in the GOP, but also whether his false claims about election fraud will outlast his own political clout.

INSKEEP: Sam, it's really interesting that you mention Mike Pence, the former vice president, there to campaign for Brian Kemp, the guy that Trump hates, because Pence has his own presidential ambitions, so you see him positioning himself there to maybe get a little bit of credit if Kemp goes ahead and wins. Will you talk a little bit about the context? Why is Georgia such an important state?

GRINGLAS: Well, Georgia is on the cusp of huge political and demographic change. Remember, Georgia voted for Joe Biden in 2020 after just decades of GOP dominance here. And all of this comes at a time when who controls the governor's mansion is really important, as we think about election integrity, abortion, the pandemic. Plus, you've got Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, who is up for reelection, and that means Georgia could once again decide who controls the U.S. Senate.

INSKEEP: Sam Gringlas of WABE. Thanks so much.

GRINGLAS: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Leaders of four nations with a common interest in containing China are pushing to work together.

FADEL: They are the U.S., Australia, India and Japan, a group known as the Quad. Their latest meeting focused not only on China but on its strategic partner, Russia. Here's President Biden speaking today at the Quad meeting.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're navigating a dark hour in our shared history. The Russian brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe, and innocent civilians have - killed in the streets, and millions of refugees are internally displaced as well as exiled. And this is more than just a European issue; this is a global issue.

INSKEEP: Which is why Biden was discussing it with leaders in Asia. Let's talk this through with NPR's John Ruwitch. He is in Shenzhen in Southern China. And, of course, China must watch these meetings very closely. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we could say the Quad, to some extent, is all about China. Is that fair?

RUWITCH: (Laughter) To some extent, it is. You know, the formal name is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. It was established in 2004 after the earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia as a way to get aid there in a coordinated way, formalized three years later. It kind of dropped off the map after that, and then President Trump resurrected it. And since then, it's really picked up steam under Biden. The group's not a formal alliance, but it's becoming more prominent. It's met four times since he became president. And yeah, the big driver is growing concern about China. And it jibes quite well with Biden's foreign policy focus on China as a threat and competitor and his effort to rally friends and allies to the cause.

INSKEEP: And of course, if you add the allies to the United States, its economic power would be overwhelming compared even with China's. But how did concern about China express itself at this meeting?

RUWITCH: Well, it was a bit indirect. I mean, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was flagged at this meeting by Trump and others as a cautionary tale for Asia, really. You know, as we heard Biden say at the top, it's more than a European issue; it's a global issue. And Japan's prime minister went further, and he said, you know, we cannot let the same thing, like an invasion of Ukraine, happen in the Indo-Pacific. He didn't name names, but, you know, many see parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan, right? Taiwan is a self-governing democracy, but Beijing considers it part of China and has really ramped up rhetoric and military exercises around the island. It wants to bring Taiwan back into the fold peacefully but hasn't renounced the use of force to do so if it needs to. So there's this thread hanging out there.

INSKEEP: Can you just clean up some remarks for us here or at least explain some remarks? President Biden said yes yesterday when asked if he would get involved militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. That is a lot less ambiguous than the U.S. normally is. But has the U.S. changed its policy?

RUWITCH: Well, Biden, again - you know, today - he said this yesterday and again today - he said, no, the policy on Taiwan has not changed, you know, including strategic ambiguity, which is a part of the approach to the way they've dealt with this question of whether or not they would defend Taiwan. As far as Beijing's concerned, the mixed messages are kind of moot. I asked Alexander Huang about this. He's a security expert who teaches at Tamkang University outside of Taipei.

ALEXANDER HUANG: In any future Taiwan scenario, we are assured from Beijing's eyes that the United States will get itself involved. So I would bet that in all military drills and military exercises, the U.S. intervention is in their playbook.

RUWITCH: You know, the reality is that Washington has been deepening its ties with partners across the Asia Pacific, like the Quad nations and like Taiwan, and ties with Beijing at the same time have just gotten frostier and frostier.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch. Thanks.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Russia invaded Ukraine three months ago today.

FADEL: And what had been anticipated as a swift Russian victory has turned into a drawn-out fight. More than 6.5 million people have fled the country. Cities have turned to rubble in the wake of the biggest attack in Europe since World War II. And yet there's no end in sight.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is reporting from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How would you summarize 90 days of war?

MYRE: Russia has underachieved; Ukraine has overachieved. This is true on almost every front. But right now neither side appears capable of a major breakthrough, a knockout blow, and there are growing signs this could become a long, drawn-out stalemate. For some perspective, I called retired U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges. He led the U.S. Army in Europe, which helped train Ukrainian troops after Russia's 2014 invasion. He also visited Ukraine just days before Russia invaded back in February. He was actually a bit surprised by how casual the Ukrainians were, but he said it seemed to reflect their confidence they had in their military now. Here's how he sees it today.

BEN HODGES: War is a test of will, and it's a test of logistics. Clearly, the Ukrainians have the stronger will. The logistical situation for them gets a little bit better every day while for the Russians, it gets a little bit worse every day.

INSKEEP: What is Ukraine's most important achievement so far?

MYRE: Ukraine forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon, at least for now, his main objective, which was to oust President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and effectively take over the country. Remember, Russian troops reached the outskirts of Ukraine's two largest cities in the early days of the war, Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv in the northeast. In both cases, the Ukrainians stopped the Russians in their tracks and forced them to retreat. Here in Kyiv, Steve, the war is still present. There are soldiers in the streets. Government buildings are sandbagged. The air raid sirens go off daily. But people are going about their life. We see families in the park. Young people are buzzing around on scooters. Kids are hanging out at the mall. The city is returning to normal, and there's no sense of imminent danger.

INSKEEP: Although let's talk about the flipside of this, Greg. It's true that the Russians have been forced to retreat from around Kyiv, and they've done nothing like what their initial objectives seemed to be, and yet if you're Vladimir Putin, you might look at this situation, if you don't particularly care about all the casualties and loss of equipment, and realize that you have more territory under Russian army control than you did at the beginning. Russia has advanced in some places and not retreated. How significant are those advances?

MYRE: It's significant. Those two southern cities they've captured - Mariupol and Kherson - advances they're making in the east. President Zelenskyy says 50 to 100 Ukrainian troops are being killed daily. Russia now has this unbroken swath of Ukrainian territory from Donbas in the east to Crimea in the south. Ukraine would need a major offensive to dislodge the Russians.

INSKEEP: One other bit of news - a Russian diplomat resigned yesterday. Why?

MYRE: Yeah, he's Boris Bondarev. He worked for the Russian diplomatic mission in Geneva. He called the war, quote, "a crime against the Ukrainian people and the people of Russia." He's not that high ranking but the most senior Russian official to quit and publicly denounce the war.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks for your reporting. Always appreciate it.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.