'Special Report' All-Star Panel on Biden-Putin call, COVID vaccine mandates

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This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," December 30, 2021. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If, in fact, he invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences, severe consequences.

KAMALA HARRIS, (D) VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We must stand up, and we are standing up for its territorial integrity. We are prepared to issue sanctions like you have not seen before.

SEN. RICK SCOTT, (R-FL) SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: We had the same problem with Obama. We have got the same problem with Biden. These guys will draw these red lines, and then do nothing about it. So what do these dictators think around the world? Biden is weak.


BRET BAIER, HOST: President Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin talking on the phone today. The White House putting out this photo of that conversation. We are told by White House officials that that call lasted for 50 minutes, a serious and substantive tone according to the senior administration officials.

But as you look at the map, this comes as tens of thousands of Russian troops are positioned along that border, and they haven't left. In fact, there's evidence that they have been fortified in recent days. And senior defense officials tell FOX that they are really concerned about what they are seeing and hearing from the Russians.

We don't know the specifics of this call, but we do know that the White House put out a statement saying "President Biden urged Russia to deescalate tensions with Ukraine. He made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine." And that decisive action in the realm of sanctions according to the president and the vice president there.

Let's bring this our panel, FOX News media analyst and host of FOX's MEDIA BUZZ Howard Kurtz, Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at "The Federalist," and Kevin Walling, Democratic strategist and former Biden campaign surrogate.

Mollie, let me start with you. It seems like this is very tense. We don't have a lot of specifics on this call, but Putin asked for the call.

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE FEDERALIST": It was interesting that he asked for the call ahead of another discussion that they are planning here soon. But Putin is going to do what he determines is in his best interest, the best interest of Russia, but also how he perceives the strength of the United States.

So it is important that we are clear in our communications with Russia about the seriousness of what they are threatening there on the border. And it's why such problem that we have mismanaged so many of our foreign entanglements in recent years. The U.S. has a role to play here. It has a role to help Ukraine and Russia which have to get along as they are neighbors, negotiate peacefully. And there is, because of our role in NATO, we can also encourage a temperance on the part of NATO in how they engage with Russia in terms of whether to expand or enlarge NATO or whether to keep a peace in that region as well.

So I know people are concerned, and they should be on guard, but we are -- there is a lot of good that can be done by the Biden administration here.

BAIER: Howie, there is this obsession, according to the former ambassador to Ukraine, of Putin about Ukraine. And there are a number of different things that can happen, but take a listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Mr. Putin understands the risks. On the other hand, he has this obsession with Ukraine. And he doesn't want Ukraine to go into Europe as Ukrainians want to do. So I think he would love, Putin would love to have us give concessions right away without him having to invade, but I think there is a real chance that he could invade.


BAIER: Yes, and that's really what defense officials are seeing, Howie, is the possibility are increasing that Russia goes in. The real question is whether they go in full to Ukraine or they try to get some kind of land bridge and carve it out to Crimea, which they already control.

HOWARD KURTZ, FOX NEWS HOST: Putin's only real leverage here are those 100,000 troops on the border. That's why he manufactured this crisis, hoping to pressure, even blackmail the U.S. into providing the security guarantees that he wanted. And the fact that he asked for this call, second Biden call of three weeks, very rare, are you noted earlier on the program, suggests to me, though, that he is looking for diplomatic offramp, to try to get the U.S. to agree to the security guarantees that he wants without having to pay a price and without being able to avoid the threatened U.S.- European sanctions that could really damage the fragile Russian economy.

But the problem for the administration is, as we learned seven years ago with the Crimean invasion, is that Putin can't be trusted. So we don't know whether he is bluffing, and he doesn't seem inclined to go along with President Biden's demand that he first engage in some military de- escalation.

BAIER: Kevin, here is how "Foreign Affairs" magazine writes up about Moscow, "What Putin learned from the Soviet collapse, Moscow has managed to fortify itself for a sustained competition with the United States. Rather than a major weakness, the economy represents a durable part of Putin's strategy for ensuring regime stability, maintaining continuity, and weathering western imposed sanctions. With the United States locked in a confrontation with China, Russia may find that in spite of a weak economy, it has increasing room to maneuver and growing rather than declining influence on the global stage."

There is not really an evidence of a foreign policy win for the Biden administration, is there right now?

KEVIN WALLING, DEMOCRACY STRATEGIST: Well, hopefully, Bret, this will be one of the key results for this administration into 2022. But what you have seen is over time President Putin has ruled Russia with an iron first but also has seen NATO enlarged over four times. And clearly Ukraine is a red line for him. He has had some egg on his face with the expansion of NATO across the different borders close in to Russia. So clearly this is of concern.

But to Mollie's point, I'm much more interested in having the dialogue, and that's why it's so critical the upcoming meetings in Geneva that we are going to be seeing in the first parts of January with our Russian counterparts. Hopefully the Biden administration will take a tough stance in those negotiations, because this administration does need some wins on the foreign policy front, to your point, Bret.

BAIER: Mollie, nobody wants to see the U.S. engaged in another military activity. But Ukraine is trying to get in NATO, and that brings in all kinds of different questions.

HEMINGWAY: And that is understandably viewed as hostile by Russia in the same way that other countries would, if alliances were forming right up their border. At the same time, Russia is acting in hostile manner, and they are an adversary to many of these countries in that region.

People in the U.S. are rightfully concerned about appeasement. That is one of the lessons that we learned from World War II, that appeasement does not work out well for the world. There's also the lesson from World War I that undue entanglements can also lead to global conflict. And that's why it's important for NATO to be strong, to have an appropriate size so that it can be effective. Remember, we agree that we will help out any other country that is invaded, it's in the NATO alliance. The larger that NATO gets, the less that is a guarantee that makes sense. And this is one of the lessons we have learned in recent decades, that we need make sure that our word means something, that our interventions make sense, and that they can be defended.

BAIER: Yes, and a lot of foreign policy experts say in 2022 we're going to be talking a lot more about China than we talk about Russia, but we will see.

Up next, confusion over changing pandemic guidance, plus the media's COVID coverage.



DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, INFECTIOUS DISEASE EXPERT: Over the next three to four weeks, we are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically that we're going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating.

MAYOR MURIEL BOWSER, (D) WASHINGTON D.C.: We want to make sure that our commitment to having in-person learning is honored. And the way to do that is to ensure that every child and every adult that enters the building next week can produce a negative COVID test within 24 hours.

DR. MARC SIEGEL, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: We have a scarcity of these tests. I would use them, but the schools should have them. Not a requirement to come in.


BAIER: Well, a lot of mixed messages on the guidance from the CDC, from the administration, what people are facing around the country. But we are just getting breaking news regarding COVID from the Pentagon. We are confirming that 206 U.S. marines have been kicked out since late November over their refusal to get the COVID vaccine. U.S. defense officials confirming to FOX News, 206 marines have been kicked out of the service. The Pentagon requires all service members to get the vaccine. It does not yet require them to get a booster, but it highly recommends it. But 206 marines are not serving because of that.

We're back with our panel. Howie, what about the coverage of COVID as you have looked at it across the spectrum and, specifically, Omicron? It seems like sometimes it goes overhand, and they don't really look at the severity of the cases.

KURTZ: Yes, the coverage has been downright confusing to the average person because there are so many mixed messages and the fact that cases are surging, but, of course, the death rate hasn't gone up very much thankfully because it seems to be milder. What the media is doing is struggling to cover a reverse shutdown, a bottom up shutdown, not any government edict but because you have all these infected workers, and have gone easy, I think, on the Biden administration for having the CDC suddenly and mysteriously saying, we only really need a five-day quarantine period. And it's not about the science. It's about keeping businesses open and planes in the sky.

The other fascinating development here, Bret, is that more experts, and this is getting a lot of media play, saying even though the cases are surging, we should just stop counting because the authorities can't track at home tests, even though there is a shortage of those due to the earlier miscalculation by the Biden administration. Now, that may well be true, but isn't it politically convenient for Joe Biden if the obsession with the number of new daily cases and the drumbeat that we saw under Donald Trump and earlier this year were simply to vanish?

BAIER: Yes, Kevin, understanding that you support the administration, but in the analysis here, the testing issue seems like it really has been a troublesome spot.

WALLING: Yes, Bret, it certainly has been. And there have been frustrations around the country with regards to long lines with testing. I think it was a failure to some degree on this administration to not anticipate the desire for testing, to obviously protect yourselves and protect others during the holiday season, to have that negative test before traveling home.

So certainly, I think you are seeing an administration refocusing on the testing issue, especially in light with the schools now coming out of winter break into January, wanting to have that negative test for teachers and students, especially as you saw that clip with Mayor Bowser of Washington, D.C. So that's obviously going to be critical. You have those 500 million tests that are being produced right now that will be available to Americans to request through the mail. That will help also to identify where those hotspots are so that the federal government can respond accordingly and to move resources to where we see these kinds of surges with Omicron, certainly.

BAIER: Mollie, meantime there is back and forth about kids getting boosters, between Fauci and the World Health Organization is quite something. Take a listen to this.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER: Younger individuals have a much more robust immune response than adults, particularly among elderly. This is something that we will continue to examine as to the possibility or necessity of providing boosts for that cohort of young people.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: The FDA is currently looking at the issue of booster shots for those 12 to 15, and I know that the companies and manufacturers are working towards data for children under five.

DR. MARTY MAKARY, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: There is no evidence to support boosters in young, healthy people. The WHO is against boosters in young, healthy people.


BAIER: And that's part of the mixed messages that we're getting, Mollie.

HEMINGWAY: It's been nothing but mixed messages for two years now. And the Biden administration, it is worth remembering, Biden campaigned and was elected on a promise to shut down the virus. He inherited a robust vaccination program, multiple vaccines that were obtained through this Operation Warp Speed, a tremendous accomplishment by the Trump administration, and has done just next to nothing when it comes to testing, and has been pushing vaccines not for the vulnerable elderly who really have a strong case to be made for getting the vaccine and getting boosted, but for younger and younger cohorts even as we learn more about the vaccine and how, contrary to what was claimed by some of these same bureaucratic elites at the onset, that the vaccine, we were told would prevent transmission, it would prevent people from getting COVID. We now know those things aren't true. And yet, their rhetoric has not changed. It's just a mess.

BAIER: OK, panel, stand by, if you would. When we come back, tomorrow's headlines.


BAIER: Finally tonight, a look at tomorrow's headlines with the panel. Kevin, first to you.

WALLING: Well, Bret, my headline for tomorrow for this panel on the last day of 2021, Biden ready to reset in 2022.

BAIER: There you go. All right, Mollie?

HEMINGWAY: My headline is for the late edition of tomorrow's paper, which would be that Alabama is headed to the national championship after defeating Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl.

BAIER: Wow. All right, Howie, bring it home here.

KURTZ: Omicron shuts down world as last healthy pundits shout at each other. I have a postapocalyptic vision, everybody is sick except these two shouting heads.


BAIER: That's probably going to happen. OK, panel, thanks so much.

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