'This Week' Transcript 2-20-22: Secretary Lloyd Austin

This is a rush transcript of "This Week" airing Sunday, February 20.

ByABC News
February 20, 2022, 9:54 AM

A rush transcript of "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" airing on Sunday, February 20, 2022 on ABC News is below. This copy may not be in its final form, may be updated and may contain minor transcription errors. For previous show transcripts, visit the "This Week" transcript archive.

MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC "THIS WEEK" CO-ANCHOR: Good morning from Ukraine, where the possibility of war with Russia is now closer than ever before, a war that would not only devastate this nation, but threaten security across Europe and beyond.

A special edition of "This Week" starts right now.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I'm convinced he's made the decision.

Make no mistake. If Russia pursues its plans, it will be responsible for a catastrophic and needless war of choice.

RADDATZ (voice-over): President Biden with the most definitive statement to date, claiming Vladimir Putin has now made the decision to invade, as the administration warns of massive casualties and millions of refugees after an assault they believe is imminent.

LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It could happen in a matter of days or even...

RADDATZ (on camera): This is not a bluff?

AUSTIN: I don't believe it's a bluff.

RADDATZ (voice-over): It's the most significant military mobilization since World War II.

This morning, in a "This Week" exclusive, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the toll this war could take and how the U.S. plans to respond.

Joining me here in Lviv, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Kristina Kvien, and former NATO Ambassador Doug Lute. What does this modern Cold War mean for America? Already, global markets in turmoil, oil prices at new highs, America's adversaries watching at a critical moment.

Plus, our ABC News team covering all angles.

JAMES LONGMAN, ABC NEWS FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: This is happening very close to Ukraine.

RADDATZ: James Longman in Belarus at a massive Russian military exercise suddenly extended, Ian Pannell on Putin's brazen nuclear drills, and Mary Bruce with the latest from the White House.


ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, this is a special edition of "This Week," "Ukraine/Russia Crisis," live from Lviv, Ukraine.

Here now, co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

RADDATZ: Good morning, and welcome to "This Week."

We join you this morning from Lviv, Ukraine. It may look like any other day. Shops are open. People are on the street. But the threat of war has hovered over this nation for weeks. And, today, that possibility seems closer than ever.

President Biden now unequivocal that Vladimir Putin is about to pull the trigger with an all-out assault on Ukraine just days away, and Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, in the crosshairs.

If that does happen, the consequences will reverberate far beyond this country, with a potential refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, surges in oil and gas prices, increased cyberattacks, and a return to Cold War-style conflict.

We have got full team coverage this morning, plus my exclusive interview with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

But we begin with Mary Bruce at the White House and Ian Pannell in Kyiv.

Good morning to you, Ian.


That's right. So, what we're seeing on the ground is more of these unsubstantiated claims of Ukrainian attacks in the east of the country. This is a pattern that we have really been seeing evolving over the last few days. They're now saying that they have been attacks by Ukrainian paratroopers.

But there also has been increased shelling on this potential flash point in the east of the country. The OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, recording a more than fivefold increase in cease-fire violations over the last day compared to the average day in 2021.

Meanwhile, we're seeing the rebels mobilizing fighting-age men. They're evacuating women, children, and the elderly in advance of what they say is going to be this all-out Ukrainian assault.

Of course, they have provided no evidence, but this is about placating and playing to domestic opinion, not just in the rebel-held east, but also in Moscow, Putin and the Kremlin falsely claiming that Russian speakers in the east are facing genocide. But this is really about trying to soften that public opinion.

And, as you say, American officials adamant that this is definitely coming -- Martha.

RADDATZ: And, Ian, with the tensions already this high, Vladimir Putin personally oversaw these massive drills of Russia's nuclear forces yesterday, reminding the world of his country's nuclear might.

PANNELL: Yes, that's right, perhaps also seen as a warning of the kind of threats that could be brought to bear if anyone tries to interfere in what he sees as his sphere of influence.

We're seeing, as you say, Russia test-firing this nuclear-capable ballistic missile, firing weapons from the ground, air, and sea. And, of course, we have also got those war games under way in Belarus. And we have seen war games take place in other parts of the country.

Now, despite all of this hype, you know that the Ukrainian government here still feels that this is a play by Putin. This is about applying maximum effort to try and extract concessions from the government here in Ukraine, potently from NATO and the Biden administration and the diplomacy, although it feels like those days are waning, it isn't dead yet.

President Macron of France speaking with Vladimir Putin earlier this morning. He’s now on the phone with President Zelensky of Ukraine. People are certainly trying to revive some kind of process to try and keep peace alive, while really the drumbeats of war are banging loud. Martha?

RADDATZ: Okay. Thanks very much, Ian. Now let’s go to Mary Bruce at The White House. And, Mary, President Biden said in no uncertain terms Vladimir Putin is set to invade, but there's still room for diplomacy. That seems like a disconnect.

MARY BRUCE, ABC NEWS SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It does, but The White House is intent on trying to pursue these two paths here.

On the one hand, trying to call out Putin. Going public with his intelligence. The president going that step further, saying he is confident and convinced that Putin has decided to invade, while at the same time trying to convey to Putin that it's not too late. Imploring him that he can still pursue diplomacy here.

Now here at The White House, we're told the president is closely monitoring this situation. He’s been receiving regular briefings and updates on events on the ground and later today the president himself will personally lead a rare meeting here at The White House with his top national security advisers. But we're told based on the latest intelligence, based on what they’re seeing on the ground, this attack could still happen at any moment. Martha?

RADDATZ: And, Mary, of course, The White House has now made specific predictions about the timing and the course of the Russian invasion, despite the obvious risk to American credibility. They could be wrong.

BRUCE: They could, and, quite honestly, they hope they are wrong. Look, they are hoping that Putin will be persuaded somehow still not to go through with this. But The White House has been incredibly transparent here. It really is a remarkable, astounding strategy for this administration. They have been pulling back the curtain on U.S. intelligence at every step along the way, trying to call out Putin, trying to share what they know, the details about his apparent attempt to build a case for war, trying to call out the misinformation and the lies about Putin’s playbook to justify an invasion. It’s all really an attempt to beat Putin at his own game, Martha.

RADDATZ: Thanks so much, Mary. Mary Bruce at The White House.

It is not just President Biden who believes the Russians are set to invade. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is now describing Russian forces poised on the border as uncoiling and poised to strike. We met up with the secretary on Friday in Poland where he met with U.S. forces supporting our NATO allies. Austin says he is still hoping for a diplomatic solution, even though he believes an invasion from Putin’s Russia is imminent.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: He's been very deliberate in terms of assembling the right kind of combat and combat support capabilities, in the border region, and so he has a number of options available to him there. And he could, he could attack in short order. Or he could --

RADDATZ: This is not a bluff?

AUSTIN: No, I don't believe it's a bluff. I think it’s -- I think he's assembled the right kind -- the kinds of things that you would need to conduct a successful invasion

RADDATZ (voiceover): Over the past week, Russian officials have insisted troops stationed along the border were returning home, but in reality, their force has only been growing. Now more than 150,000 Russian soldiers surround Ukraine.

RADDATZ (on camera): He's got things like medical tents and nurses. You would never have seen that if you were going to be withdrawing your troops?

AUSTIN: Exactly. If they were redeploying to garrison, we wouldn't be seeing the kinds of things in terms of, not only combat power, but also logistical support, medical support, combat aviation that we've seen in the region

RADDATZ: You've been at war. We're sitting in a room full of armored vehicles and tanks. Describe, if you will, why this would be different? Would we see tanks rolling into Kyiv?

AUSTIN: Well, you could see that. I mean, that's highly likely. You could see that. You could see a significant amount of combat power move very quickly now to take Kyiv. So in terms of the types of things that could happen, not only (ph) need to look at what's on the other side of the Ukrainian border. You know?

We see a lot of tanks and armored vehicles there. We see a lot of artillery. We see rocket forces. If he employs that kind of combat power, it will certainly create enormous casualties within the civilian population and so this could create a -- a tragedy, quite frankly, in terms of refugee flow and displaced people. So this is potentially very, very dangerous.

RADDATZ: How confident are you, given what's happened in the past with Afghanistan, with Iraq, are you absolutely confident the intelligence you're seeing now?

AUSTIN: We have high confidence in the things that we're looking at. Of course, you know, in terms of being able to predict exactly what's going to happen going forward -- you know, you never can. I mean, you can assess what you see, present it to you and what you're seeing happening on the ground, but, again, I think you have to look at every possibility, which is what we do.

RADDATZ: If he invades, what happens then? What's the immediate response from the U.S. and NATO?

AUSTIN: The sanctions that we talked about, you know, we're very serious about, and these are sanctions that will have effects that Mr. Putin has not realized before.

You know, the sad part about this, Martha, is that it may not affect Mr. Putin to the degree that it's going to affect the average Russian. And, you know, the decisions that he's making now will bring about a lot of pain and suffering on his comrades in Russia.

RADDATZ: Americans could feel the impact of those sanctions, too. Russia is the third largest oil producer in the world. Any disruptions to the global oil market could create shortages in Europe and increase gas prices in the U.S.

Ukraine is a long way away. I think most Americans probably, until the last couple of months, didn't really know where it was or pay much attention to it.

So really focus, if you will, on why this battle, a conventional war, really, would be so different and so harmful, and how much it would change the world really?

AUSTIN: Uh-huh. Why we care about this and why Americans should care about it -- you've heard us talk all along about the importance of maintaining a rules-based international order. No one country should be able to dictate to another country what it -- what it can choose to do in terms of who it aligns itself with or no one country should be able to redefine another country's boundaries at will.

RADDATZ: The administration insists American troops won't go into Ukraine itself, that forces based in Poland and elsewhere in the region are there only to defend our NATO allies.

You are meeting with U.S. troops today. We were talking to some of those U.S. troops. They're not going into Ukraine, but what is the possibility of some sort of engagement for them if Vladimir Putin moves into Ukraine, which is right next door?

AUSTIN: President Biden has been very clear about, you know, the fact that we're not going to employ forces in Ukraine. And we will make sure that we do everything possible to protect our troops and our Polish partners so that there isn't a spillover cross-boundary.

But that’s just -- this is something that we'll be on lookout for and we’ll be thoughtful about making sure that we've taken the right steps to try to prevent that.

RADDATZ: Do you think there is any risk to our troops?

AUSTIN: There's always -- I think our troops will be -- will be fine. We will be very diligent in terms of thinking through the range of possibilities and putting the right things in place to ensure that we -- we've done everything we can to protect our troops.


RADDATZ: And we're joined now, in Lviv, by two experienced diplomats in the region. Kristina Kvien, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the charges d’affaires. And we want to welcome Doug Lute, our newest ABC News contributor, former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Thanks to you both for joining us this morning.

And I want to start with you. You've given me permission to call you Kristina.

We've been negotiating with the Russians for months, and yet here we are on the verge of a possible invasion. So what could possibly work on the diplomatic front at this point?

KRISTINA KVIEN, ACTING U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Well, despite President Putin's continued buildup of troops on the border, aggressive rhetoric and now, false flag operations and flooding of disinformation globally, we still hope and wish that President Putin would make the decision to take the diplomatic path. We have offered ways that we can address some of this security concerns. We've given him papers laying those out, and it would really be an easy decision for him. All he has to do is decide to take the diplomatic path. So that's what we're hoping and urging him to do.

RADDATZ: And yet you have said, you think what Putin wants is control of Ukraine. NATO's not going to let that happen. U.S. is not going to let that happen in any kind of negotiations.

So, how does that actually work?

KVIEN: Well, ultimately, President Putin has to decide not to take a path that will be disastrous. Disastrous for Ukraine, of course, with the potential for thousands of casualties, but also disastrous for Russia, not only because Ukraine will fight and Russia will face casualties, too, but also because Russia will face devastating sanctions by the United States and other partners and allies if they take this path.

RADDATZ: Doug, you're out of the business of diplomacy now. So, do you think there's any possibility or do you see an invasion?

LUTE: I don't think it's inevitable. My West Point classmate, Lloyd Austin, the other day said, there's still an option for President Putin top decide otherwise. And it's not inevitable.

He has a lot of options short of invasion. And I think, frankly, that those sorts of options, cyberattacks, further destabilizing in the Donbas are much more likely than a full-scale invasion.

RADDATZ: And, Dough, you were NATO ambassador in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. What -- what do you think Putin learned from that experience?

LUTE: Well, I think he learned that surprise is an important factor. In 2014, he took us by surprise, and he seized Crimea, then illegally annexed it. He destabilize the Donbas while we were on our back foot.

Which surprises me now because he's done exactly the opposite. He spent weeks, if not months, to amass this large, potential invasion force and he has sacrificed surprise. So it's curious to me. And I'm not sure that he's decided that an invasion is the way to go.

RADDATZ: As you know, the president has said he has decided.

KVIEN: Right.

RADDATZ: If this happens, and -- and, first of all, I want to know whether you think it's -- it's practically a certainty, a point? How does that conflict spread beyond here? Can it spread beyond here? Will we be in a new cold wear?

KVIEN: Right. Well, first of all, I would say that I agree with President Biden, that it is likely to happen, that the president -- that President Putin has made a decision. That doesn't mean it can't be stopped. It doesn't mean President Putin can't change his mind. But I do think that right now he's moving towards a large-scale invasion.

So then the question is, what does that mean? It means, not only is Ukraine a threat, but really all of the global order and certainly eastern Europe is at threat, because if President Putin is bold enough and brazen enough and foolish enough to do this, who knows what else he'll be willing to do.

RADDATZ: And --and -- and, Doug, I know you said you don't think it's necessarily a certainty. But when you hear them say it's a certainty and you think of the intelligence and they've put out all of this intelligence, you can't help thinking of Iraq, which you have great experience in there, 9/11 and Afghanistan, where intelligence clearly failed. So, could they be wrong?

LUTE: Well, sure. The intelligence may be wrong. Of course, what the analysts are looking at, Martha, both the capabilities, things easy to measure, like photographs of troops amassed along the border and so forth, but they're all trying -- also trying to assess President Putin's intentions. And this gets very foggy. This gets -- he holds his cards very close to the vest. It's much harder to assess intentions.

I think that he has enjoyed the last several weeks of attention. He has already destabilized Ukraine in -- by way of its, the impact he's had on the Ukrainian economy. And it's not clear to me that he wants to incur all the consequence that Kristina laid out, plus this most severe consequence, which is trying to control the 40 million people in Ukraine. So, I'm not sure.

RADDATZ: And I want to talk about the people of Ukraine. Obviously, it's a day where people are out shopping. It -- it -- all my -- almost seems like they're not on the brink of war. But -- but really talk about the cost here? What would happen to this nation?

KVIEN: Right. First of all, you know, Ukrainians have been living with war now for eight years. Russia is already in Crimea and the Donbas and there is a -- there is a hot war in Donbas where 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed. So, the Ukrainians do have, you know, a tough Constitution. They're used to this. And that's why you see, they're not panicking. They're not, you know, hiding in their houses. They're going out and enjoying life while they can.

But Ukrainians will fight. Ukrainians are extremely patriotic. They love their country and they're not afraid to fight. We've seen it in the past. If the Russians come in, the Ukrainians will fight. And there could be very heavy casualties on both sides. The human cost of this could be astronomical and -- and horrendous. And all on the will be on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin.

RADDATZ: And, refugees. We were at the border crossing yesterday --

KVIEN: That's right.

RADDATZ: And saw how difficult it is to get across.

RADDATZ: I can't imagine what will happen if refugees start streaming towards those borders?

KVIEN: Right. There is -- there are some -- is some speculation that there would be a large flood of refugees from eastern Ukraine to west, either to stay in the west or to go further into Poland and other E.U. member states to the west.


KVIEN: Obviously that would be very destabilizing, not only for western Ukraine but also for the countries that would be taking in these refugees.

RADDATZ: And, Doug, I want to -- you are a retired three-star general as well, spent your life in the Army. I just want you to have the final word here on how you think, if they do invade, if the Russians do come in here and they go into Kyiv, how does this end?

What -- what will this country look like over -- over days or weeks or months or years?

LUTE: Well, obviously, the most severe sequences, as Kristina has laid out, will be right here in Ukraine. And Ukrainians will be first to suffer and they'll suffer the most.

The consequences won't stay here in Ukraine. There will be the refugee flow that we've already talked about. There will be severe economic impacts.

Look, the energy markets are already tight and energy prices high. This will spike the energy prices globally. This is a global market.

And then, of course, the refugees that are flowing out of Ukraine are flowing into NATO countries. So there's potential of military spillover as well.

You know, you asked me earlier, Martha, about intelligence. In this case, we're settling on the worst-case analysis. And, frankly, we can all hope that that intelligence is wrong.

RADDATZ: I think we're all hoping for the same thing, but we're standing by.

Thanks very much to both of you for joining us this morning.

Coming up, it's the latest signal indicating exactly what Putin is planning next. ABC News was there on the scene, and our James Longman joins us live from Belarus, next.



VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: The United States takes seriously the importance of the integrity and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. If Russia further invades your country, as I mentioned earlier today, we will impose swift and severe economic sanctions. We would prefer that this would be resolved in a diplomatic way and we have remained open to a diplomatic path to resolution.


RADDATZ: Vice President Harris meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky in Germany yesterday. It came as tens of thousands of Russian forces were supposed to complete a massive military drill in Belarus just several hours north of Ukraine's capital, in what the U.S. worries could be used as cover for a possible invasion.

Those troops were due to leave today, but are now staying, sending another ominous signal.

Our foreign correspondent, James Longman, joins us now with the story -- James.

LONGMAN: Yes, good morning, Martha.

Russian drills that have been going on here for 10 days in Belarus were due to end today. But, as you say, we have had it confirmed that Russian troops will now stay here. And if Kyiv is in Vladimir Putin's sights, as the U.S. worries it is, then, in any invasion, it would be troops from Belarus which could sweep down to the Ukrainian capital.


LONGMAN (voice-over): These Russian military drills in Belarus were scheduled to end today, but, this morning, another worrying step towards war. Belarus has confirmed Russian troops are staying.

With what looks to be a major Russian false flag operation under way in Eastern Ukraine, this decision intensifies the sense that Putin is going to invade.

In a statement, the Belarusian Defense Ministry saying: "Due to the increase in military activity at the external borders of the Union State, the Russian Federation decided to continue checking the reaction forces of the Union State."

Ukraine has been surrounded by Moscow's massive military might for months, on a scale not seen since the Cold War. Moscow and Minsk say these are preplanned drills. But, with the West warning of an attack at any moment, there's increasing evidence that these troops might be here for much more than that.

(on camera): This is a massive display of military might that Moscow is keen for the world to see. All this is happening very close to Ukraine. So far, this has been a crisis about demonstrating threatening strength. The question is whether Vladimir Putin uses it.

(voice-over): An estimated 30,000 troops have traveled more than 6,000 miles across Russia, attack helicopters, airborne units and tank battalions among the assets on display.

The U.S. worries that these troops might be used in a Russian invasion to sweep down to the Ukrainian capital. It's just two hours from the Belarusian-Ukraine border to Kyiv, where, in a worst-case scenario, analysts say Putin would try to disable the Ukrainian government.

If these images look threatening, that's the point. These drills are intended to scare. But, beyond the bluster, some of the activity here is not so overt. Satellite images show some units are not in the designated drill areas. They're much closer to the border with Ukraine. Another shows a field hospital, although, again, these may be part of the picture Russia wants to paint.


LONGMAN: Keeping his troops here in Belarus may just be a Putin tactic to keep the pressure up.

But Belarus is firmly in Putin's grip. And if he wants to keep his troops here indefinitely as a long-term threat to Ukraine, he can -- Martha.

RADDATZ: Thank you, James Longman, for us in Belarus.

And, as we mentioned, Russia has forces massed around three sides of Ukraine, with multiple options for an invasion.

For more analysis, we turn to Colonel Steve Ganyard, a veteran of the Pentagon and State Department.

Thanks for joining us this morning, Steve.

And I want to ask you. We have been looking at these images of these Russian troops, these tanks, 150,000 troops. When you look at the way those Russian forces are arrayed, what are you seeing? And what are we not seeing in terms of missiles?


So, as we can see, he has three sides of Ukraine surrounded, but the troop dispositions are fairly even. He doesn't want to tip his hand off that, if there is a ground invasion, what his focus of effort will be.

What we don't see on that map is the some 400 Iskander surface-to-surface missiles that cover about 95 percent of the country and would be used to take out critical infrastructure to try and shut the country down.

On top of that, almost 50 percent of the Russian air force can fly sorties against Ukraine right now from their bases, so a lot of firepower lined up. But Mr. Putin is not tipping his hand as to how he would use it just yet.

RADDATZ: And, Steve, the administration is really focused on Kyiv, saying that this could begin in Kyiv.

How does he bring down the government? What happens if he does that, after he tries to do that?

GANYARD: That is the key, to bring down this government, to bring down the elected government, and to make Ukraine a vassal state.

So, a couple of ways he could do that. He could go with a massive bombardment, massive cyberattacks, take out all of the critical infrastructure, try to shut down everything about the Ukrainian economy as a way to pressure the government.

If that doesn't work, then it would be a ground invasion, in a ground invasion, two primary options. He could go after Kyiv, as the way that the administration is saying they think he will, but he still won't have more than a fraction of those 150,000 troops to circle and siege -- take siege of a city of more than three million well-armed people.

The other way he could do it would be to push in from Eastern Ukraine and basically push all the way to the Dnieper River. What you see is sort of that north/south geographic divide. That river is an economic lifeline to the Black Sea.

It's also sort of the -- what used to be the Soviet breadbasket. It’s a fantastically rich agriculture area. It contains all domestic gas production and the two pipelines that we know come out of Russia and go into Europe.

Essentially what he could do taking that much territory, about the size of Florida, would be to economically strangle Ukraine and that way force the Ukrainian government from power.

RADDATZ: And, Steve, as we sit here we're all on edge, of course. Will this begin? How do we know when it begins? We've seen shelling in the east, but what is the first signal we'll get?

GANYARD: Yeah. We know that interestingly enough commercial satellites and social media have taken away a lot of the element of surprise and given the lie to these false flag operations. So, we will see if Mr. Putin decides to do this massive bombardment, aerial bombardment, surface-to-surface, aircraft intended to take out all parts of the economy and shut down Ukraine, isolate it from the rest of the world.

But the real key here is to see if Mr. Putin commits ground troops. And once he commits ground troops, where do they go? It may take hours if not days to see what his true intent is, once the ground troops commit to Ukraine.

RADDATZ: Thanks so much, Steve. We’ll be tracking it with you all week.

We have to take a quick break. Much more ahead on this unfolding crisis as our special edition of "This Week" live from Lviv, Ukraine, continues.


RADDATZ: The White House has been focused on Ukraine most of the week, but we want to catch up on domestic news as well. And for that, I’m going to hand off to Jon Karl in Washington -- Jon.


Back here at home, there seems to be an all-out revolt against COVID restrictions, with infections down, red states and blue are not waiting for the CDC to drop mask mandates.

The roundtable is here to talk that and this week's big setback for the Trump Organization.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They should have been focused on reopening schools, like most districts were thinking about and doing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These kids had only about six weeks of in-class instruction last year. I mean before summer break.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw a lot of kids struggling. You know, we're -- you know, doing school from home and I saw the school board prioritize renaming schools over getting kids back into school.


KARL: Those are some of the San Francisco parents who voted overwhelmingly to oust a school board that had been accused of spending more time renames schools than getting them reopened. We're going to talk about that and much more with our roundtable.

We are joined by pollster and communications advisor Frank Luntz, former DNC Chair Donna Brazile, ABC News political director Rick Klein, and "Politico Playbook" co-author Rachael Bade.

So, Donna, the president is just over a week away from his State of the Union Address. He faces the very real possibility of going into that speech again the backdrop of a war in Europe, economic anxiety at home and a clear, decisive majority disapproving or unhappy with his performance as president. How does he turn it around?

DONNA BRAZILE, ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, first of all, tone matters. And I think what the president should do is talk to the American people, just like you and I are sitting here talking. You and I have had, you know, we've broken bread. Talk to the American people. They want to know about the challenges that we're facing. They want to hear what he's doing. I mean, inflation is robbing us of our joys, stealing our hard-earned wages. I can't go to the grocery store without complaining about the price of eggs and bacon. I mean a pound of bacon is almost $9. Jesus. I mean, that's it more me and bacon. I never thought I would give it up.

But the point is, is that he has to talk about Covid. Yes, we're tired of Covid, but Covid is not tired of us. He has to talk about crime. We don't want to, you know, have a country that people are running around with guns. But at the same time, the president can also tell us what he's doing, what has been accomplished, and the work that he needs to get done over the next couple of years.

KARL: So, we've heard from David Axelrod, of course, President Obama's top adviser, with some advice for Biden on how to approach this. Let me read a portion of what he said. The state of the union is stressed, he said. To claim otherwise, to highlight the progress we have made without fully acknowledging the hard road we have traveled and the distance we need to go would seem off key and out of touch. You simply cannot jaw bone Americans into believing things are better than they feel.

So, basically, from Axelrod, Frank, we're hearing the advice that Biden should offer a dose of humility. That's not usually what we hear in a State of the Union Address.


KARL: Is that really the way to go?

LUNTZ: It -- he's got to tell the truth, which means you have to acknowledge where things are. You can't tell people that happy days are here again and you're in the middle of -- of a depression. You can't tell people that things are good.

And, by the way, it's not inflation. So here's an example of language. No one actually says, "Wow, look at all that inflation," when they walk through a supermarket, or think of inflation when they put gas in their tanks. The American people are paying more for everything they've got. And they wonder, "Is it ever going to stop?"

They look at what's going on in Ukraine and they wonder, "Have we lost our respect?"

They look at shortages that they went through and they wonder, are they ever going to be able to get that house or the car that they want to buy?

This is real. There's a level of anxiety that I haven't seen since the 1970s, and I'd be curious to your reaction. Joe Biden ran as Harry Truman. He thought he was going to govern as Franklin Roosevelt. But this, to me, looks just like Jimmy Carter, in every possible way. And those people sitting in the chamber on the 1st of March are going to wonder from this president, is he going to do to them what Jimmy Carter did, which is give us Ronald Reagan? Is he going to do to them what Bill Clinton, which was he gave us...


KARL: Well, to take the Carter analogy one step further, I mean, if you look at Axelrod's advice, "lean into the anxiety, humility." I mean, he's basically advising him to give a malaise speech.



KLEIN: Axelrod touched a nerve with a lot of Democrats...

KARL: Yeah.

KLEIN: ... because the idea of, kind of, coming in with humility, sure, but saying things are rough -- that is not the tone that people have come to expect out of a president. And there's a lot of Democrats that I've heard from in the last couple of days who say "We've got a lot to run on. We've come a long way. We're getting better. We have a lot to run against, still, in terms of what Republicans would offer."

So to go in there and -- and say, look, time's are tough, that is -- may sound good -- and I think, Frank, you make a point about telling the truth. You can't -- you can only spin so much when it comes to things like inflation. But Democrats still think they have got a lot of things to brag about, about the progress that's being made, and they think they need to -- to show people that they continue to deliver. That's hard to wedge into a malaise-type speech.

BADE: It is a tricky balance, though, because, you know, Democrats, a lot of them have been frustrated with, you know, President Biden going out there and saying inflation is, quote, "transitory," like it's just temporary; it's going to go away. And it's been months now. It's only gotten worse.

You know, there was an interview, you know, just a few days ago where he attacked Lester Holt, calling him a "wise guy" for just asking questions that American voters, whether they be Democrats, independents or Republicans, are asking, is "What are you doing to do about inflation?"

And so he does have to do things for front-liners who are up in 2022 and who are saying "We need to tout our accomplishments, like infrastructure, what we've done so far with the pandemic," but he's really got to be careful not to sound tone deaf like he has for the past several months when it comes to this inflation issue.

BRAZILE: But, you know, the music is more important than the melody. And you know the lyrics. Because you use "Inflation doesn't matter." When I go in the grocery store, it jumps at me. Because I know the price of eggs.

LUNTZ: Not inflation, prices, costs.

BRAZILE: It jumps at me.

LUNTZ: Costs.

BRAZILE: Correct, the costs. But you know what also jumps at me? The number of people I know that have died because of COVID, the number of siblings that have been sick or relatives that can't go back to work. That's what people are also feeling, this anxiety, what -- what COVID has done to this country, to the world and to all of us.

And so while we want to put him in a Jimmy Carter box or a Ronald Reagan box, let's make sure that we understand the box that we've all been in.

LUNTZ: OK, but...

BRAZILE: Because COVID has made us fully aware of so much in this country, the health inequities, the fact that the supply chain got jammed up. The country was shut down, Frank, and Joe Biden is responsible for helping to reopen this economy.

LUNTZ: That's not -- but here's the issue. I'm a pollster. And that's not how the American people feel. They put him in to address it directly, to challenge the mistakes of the Trump administration. And instead we've had testing problems; we've had shortages. People have not been able to get access.

And there's been continuing reversal of the federal government and what their strategy and standard should be. So Joe Biden can't even get credit for that. On issue after issue, point after point, Biden's numbers aren't just in the 40s; they're now in the 30s, and even Democrats themselves have come to say, "What's wrong here?"

BRAZILE: Because Democrats are tired of this COVID. And you know what? For a president to have to convince Americans to get vaccinated...

LUNTZ: I agree with that.

BRAZILE: OK, for a president to have to convince Americans to get tested, and to convince governors and mayors in certain areas of this country to utilize the resources that he has made available. It has been a tough job being president. You've got to admit that.


LUNTZ: That's the problem. It's bigger than just the president. It's bigger than just COVID, bigger than just prices. We genuinely have -- and you study the polls -- we generally have a malaise in this country, a belief that things are going wrong, a lack of trust in our elected officials to do what's right...

KARL: Well...

LUNTZ: ... and a fear of the future.


KARL: OK, but you...

LUNTZ: ... we are as negative as we have been in 40 years.

KARL: And then you saw that San Francisco school board election, which was a local election. It's the ultimate local election, a school board election.

KLEIN: Right.

KARL: But weren't the aftershocks felt here as well. These were liberal-on-liberal -- basically, a rebellion against those COVID restrictions?

For all that you say, absolutely correct, this has affected everybody and showed inequities in our health care system and all that, but people even in liberal San Francisco are sick of the restrictions.

KLEIN: A fascinating moment, Jon.

I mean, you had conservatives after the fact trumpeting the fact that liberals ousted other liberals. But this was bigger than politics. This was parents against parents. This was about how you feel things on a visceral level, how you experience the way that government interacts with you and your child, and the fact that you had people who seemed more focused on peripheral issues, issues of school renaming, that were not laser-focused on getting kids back in the classroom, that had a schools that were shut down for over a year.

The -- it just, to me, spoke to the scars that people are taking out of COVID. People are really, really stung by what happened. They want lives back. And it tells you why you have got all these Democratic governors and mayors who are saying, enough with the restrictions. They're lifting restrictions, because people are over them.

KARL: In fact, Rachael, as of this week, 49 states have either lifted or don't have mask mandates or are moving to remove mask mandates, I mean, way ahead of the CDC on this and way ahead of the president on this.

BADE: Yes.

I mean, politically, it shows where the country is right now. And I think, for Democrats, it's a real challenge, because, if you look at polling of Democrats, they're very much divided on the issue themselves. And a lot -- and, in fact, a majority of Democrats don't want the mask mandates, the vaccine mandates, to go away.

But what you are, you're hearing from a lot of these front-line Democrats, people who are going to be up in 2022, who are seeing these polls and saying, oh, my gosh, we have to recalibrate.

Just a couple of days ago, we had the leader of the Democratic campaign arm saying, we have got to get back to normal life. Let's end mandates. The next day, President Biden said it was -- quote -- "premature."

And so that really shows a divide in the party on an issue that is very central to voters going into a midterm election that Democrats are already facing an uphill battle. It's a real challenge for them.

KARL: Another big factor in the midterm election is Donald Trump, of course.

And we had a major development, Frank, regarding the Trump Organization and the investigations into their business practices, their accounting firm, Trump's accounting firm, saying that they -- not only are they dropping him as a client, but that they can't stand by the financial statements they have made over the last decade.

So, the question I have for you, Frank, is, are Republicans feeling some anxiety about tying themselves too closely to a Donald Trump that is that -- where it seems to be the legal wall seems to be kind of moving in on him?

LUNTZ: So let's make some news.

KARL: OK, let's make some news.

LUNTZ: If you look at the polling data, you do the focus groups, you talk to independents, as I have done, I find it difficult to see any other conclusion than Republicans winning control of the House and winning control of the Senate in November.

Now, a lot of stuff can change. And I know that we don't know what's going to happen in Ukraine. But Republicans should win both of those, based on what's happening right now and what we know is going to happen over the coming months.


KARL: I sense a but coming.

LUNTZ: A but, which is only Donald Trump could stand in that way.

Only Donald Trump and what he says and how he says it could prevent Republicans from winning the majority. If he makes this about November of 2020 or January of 2021, that could cost Republicans the Senate. If he tries to make this election about himself, he will be -- the Republicans...


KARL: Well, that is what he is trying to do.

The question, though, Rachael, is, how closely are the Republicans going to be tying themselves to Trump going into the midterms?

BADE: I think it'll depend on every race. Some people will be closer than others.

But it's interesting that you bring this up, because, last weekend, after this RNC flub, where they had this legitimate political discourse comment about January 6, there was a lot of party infighting. There's been a lot of discontent with how that was handled.

I called a bunch of Republican strategists, about 10 of them. And I said, is this a concern for you? And, universally, I heard, look, it's not great. But they were convinced, and they still are convinced, a lot of these Republican strategists, that this is not what people are looking at outside of Washington.

I mean, we, the media, obviously are all obsessed with it. We cover it all the time. But when it comes to voters in Wisconsin and voters in Florida, they're worried about their bottom line. They're worried about the pandemic.

And, so, a lot of Republicans, despite Trump and despite this divide that you still see in the party over how to handle him and January 6, they're feeling very confident that they can still flip both chambers.

KLEIN: And, Jon...

BADE: And so we will see if that holds.

KLEIN: And, Jon, to Frank's point, there’s an interesting split screen going on where we got -- nearing a record number of House retirements on the Democratic side. But you pair that with what's going on in the Senate, and you’re seeing recruiting failures after recruiting failures. The governors of Maryland, governor of New Hampshire, governor of Arizona so far also not getting in.

These are the kind of people that traditionally are being very strong Senate candidates, they do not want to run in this Trump-dominated environment because of the political identities that they put out there.

KARL: People you mentioned are people that have become crossed ways with Trump.

KLEIN: That’s right. And that to me -- I think the House, I think most Democrats would acknowledge is almost certainly not going to go their way, but in the Senate, what might give them a fighting chance are some of these candidates who were scared away by Trump and might be some bruising primaries that end up with just people that are too far into the extremes for their states.

LUNTZ: Jon, take this -- please, take this bigger. That in the Hill staff -- I was up on the Hill Monday and Tuesday on the Senate side, I interviewed 33 staffers. Every single Democratic staffer had a mask. Every single Republican staffer did not.

Even on issues of health, on security, on every aspect of our lives, we’re now polarized. We’re now divided, and we don't talk to each other anymore. There’s more of a conflict -- conversation and less of a conflict on this set than there is in any other place in Washington, D.C.

BRAZILE: Well, let me just say this. Donald Trump's accountant firm did this, okay?

KARL: Yeah.

BRAZILE: When somebody rips their agreement --

LUNTZ: Can I have that?


BRAZILE: No. I don't want you to eat it. It might be important stuff.

LUNTZ: I save stuff like this.

BRAZILE: But when you're an accountant firm says that the numbers don't match, and they don't want to be accused of fraud, Donald Trump is going to have to listen to the music at some point, and I do believe that the New York state attorney general is going to make sure that he sings -- whether he takes the Fifth Amendment or whatever.

But I have to say one other thing. When we took out of foot off the pedal, Delta came at us. We took our hands out of the wheel, Omni came at us. We have to be very cautious and make sure what we're doing.

KARL: And it’s interesting. In the State of the Union, in that chamber, masks will be required.

BRAZILE: Thank the Lord.

KARL: And we’ll see -- and we’ll see how many Republicans show up and how many wear a mask.

We are out of time. We’ll have more from Martha Raddatz live in Ukraine after the break.

Stay with us.


KARL: Welcome back.

Martha Raddatz rejoins us from Ukraine.

Martha, you've covered just about every major foreign policy crisis in recent history, but now we seem to be watching a pivotal moment unfold. One that could remake the world order that's really existed since end of the Cold War.

RADDATZ: It really, truly is a very, very different moment here, Jon, and a very different feel. I mean we are in the square right now. People are walking around, as we said. But crossing into Ukraine yesterday, over that border, you could really feel the tension. And this would be such a different kind of conflict. A conventional war. So, we truly are standing by for what happens next.

But for now, that is all for us today. Stay with ABC News for all the developments on this fluid situation streaming on ABC News Live, online at abcnews.com and down the ABC News app for breaking news update. And, of course, we'll have a full wrap-up this evening on "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT," tomorrow morning on "GMA."

I'm Martha Raddatz reporting from Lviv, Ukraine. Have a good day.