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Transcript: The Beat with Ari Melber, 3/16/22

Guests: Suzanne Nossel, Ned Price, Marie Yovanovitch, John Tefft


President Zelenskyy addresses the U.S. Congress, as Russia continues its attacks on his cities. State Department spokesman Ned Price discusses the war in Ukraine. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch speaks out. Steve Bannon appears in court in his contempt on Congress prosecution. Russia`s war on journalism and journalists is examined.



Ari, who let me into a door I was locked out of earlier today, nice to see you again, my friend.

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Nicolle, it`s a sign that we are at work in the office, which is one good thing.


WALLACE: It is one good thing. We will take it.

MELBER: Nice to see you in person...

WALLACE: Nice to see you.

MELBER: ... and through the monitor.

Nicolle Wallace, always good to see you. Thank you.

Welcome to THE BEAT, everyone. I am Ari Melber.

And we are, of course, continuing our war coverage here, day 21 of Russia`s invasion. There is talk of some potential road to a peace deal. That is something everyone would seem to welcome, if it were real. Russia and Ukraine officials are signaling a type of cautious optimism. We will explain the details.

On the ground, though, Russia is continuing to launch brand-new attacks on civilians in the center of Kyiv, an apartment building here struck at 6:00 a.m. local time, the death toll not immediately known.

Kyiv`s mayor colorfully responded to Putin`s attacks.


QUESTION: Putin says he`s only targeting military targets.


Sorry. Where is military target? This building is military target?


MELBER: Kyiv is under a curfew, the streets mostly empty.

There are reports that you can still hear machine gun firing at all times of the day. In Mariupol, Russian forces destroyed a theater where hundreds of civilians were sheltering, no official death toll there, but it`s another example of what appear to be these targets against civilians, a horrifying scene overall.

Also, there was the aftermath of a Russian attack on a breadline, where 10 other individuals were killed, according to a local death count. NBC has not verified the video. And there was blurring done before NBC obtained that video. We just mention that in terms of knowing what we know about what we`re sharing with you.

Meanwhile, back inside the United States in Washington, President Zelenskyy, giving an impassioned plea to the American Congress and a message for the president.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Today, it`s not enough to be the leader of the nation. Today, it takes to be the leader of the world. being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace. Peace in your country doesn`t depend anymore only on you and your people. It depends on those next to you and those who are strong.


MELBER: This is another striking moment in a series of moments where we have seen Zelenskyy and others fighting in Ukraine, fighting against what you just saw on your screen, what they know could be imminent death at any time. They are at war, in a war zone. They`re under attack.

This was an appeal to the Congress. And Zelenskyy, who understands, of course, the power of images and storytelling in what he is trying to summon, which is a greater military support or involvement from Western states, which have repeatedly basically passed on these types of impassioned pleas and requests.

So he also used the opportunity to play this produced video to show what he argues is the devastating Russian destruction of Ukraine. Those are real images, but, as emphasized, they are a product of the government of Ukraine. That is some of the information and video they`re putting out in what is part of, basically, an international lobbying effort to get a no- fly zone.

Zelenskyy was warmly received, even if there are some differences on foreign policy. You could see the bipartisan standing ovation from lawmakers who gathered in person to watch his virtual address. Right after the speech, President Biden announced $800 million more in lethal aid for Ukraine, including armed drones, anti-tank and anti-armor systems.

And for the first time, we heard President Biden say this about Vladimir Putin.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Did you ask me whether I would call...

QUESTION: Putin a war criminal, sir.

BIDEN: Oh, I think he is a war criminal.


MELBER: As for the diplomacy, there are the signs that it may be working, the talks discussing a realistic direction. That`s according to Zelenskyy, while Russia`s Foreign Minister Lavrov is saying publicly they hope for reaching a compromise.

What would that mean in the middle of this war?

We have the experts here.

To get into it. I`m joined by ambassador John Tefft, who is the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Katty Kay, special U.S. correspondent for BBC News.

Welcome to both of you.


Ambassador, let`s begin in plain English.

People in America and around the world watching this war watching what we just saw, watching what Russia continues to do, and they would ask and I put the question to you what does it possibly mean to go from that to some sort of change or truce?

JOHN TEFFT, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Right before we came on, Ari, I saw a report that "The Financial Times" of London has put out, that says that there`s in fact a draft 15-point peace plan, that -- and they didn`t have all of the points and they didn`t have all of the details.

But the message on "The Financial Times" was that both sides are actually working fairly energetically to be able to get to some kind of a deal. Now, I think the odds are still pretty slim, because it looks, as we have seen today, as you summarized at the beginning of your program, still horrific bombardment, killing of innocent civilians and children in Ukraine.

But there is hope, obviously, that this nightmare that we have all been going through the last three weeks, longer, will come to an end, not clear when or how, what the remaining issues are, but at least it`s encouraging that the two sides are talking apparently about a specific proposal.

MELBER: What precisely would that off-ramp look like?

TEFFT: Well, according to what I read in the summary of "Financial Times," the Ukrainians would commit not to be seeking a NATO membership.

But, at the same time, they would require security guarantees. Not clear exactly who, but "The Financial Times" mentioned, obviously, Western powers, but also Turkey and perhaps others, to make sure that their security is guaranteed. But there were no details about withdrawal of Russian troops or other specifics about bringing the fighting to an end and making sure that it doesn`t start again.

MELBER: Is your understanding that the first step in this kind of agreement, especially given past precedent, would be some cessation of the armed conflict, leaving who`s in control of the land to another day?

TEFFT: I think that may be the case.

I think that we have got to stop the horrible killing and fighting. President Zelenskyy is the head of a democracy. And, unlike Putin, who can make decisions on his own, President Zelenskyy has to reach a deal which he can sell the Ukrainian people.

So the devil will be in the details here, particularly on the Ukrainian side.

MELBER: Understood. And appreciate you walking us through.

Katty, take a listen to Vladimir Putin today, who in his public remarks doesn`t sound like he`s anywhere near any peace deal.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): But any people, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a fly into the mouth, spit them out.

I am convinced that such a natural and necessary cleansing of society will only strengthen our country.


MELBER: A reference to -- quote -- "cleansing a society" -- end quote -- in Russia or Western Europe always concerning, Katty.

He certainly sounds like someone trying to deal with a dissent or unrest in his autocratic way, not yet someone who`s trying to sell a saving-face measure or an off-ramp or a peace deal, which might lessen his need to do this so-called -- quote -- "cleansing."

KATTY KAY, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I mean, it was a really vitriolic kind of rant that President Putin went on in Moscow today.

You had this kind of dual image of President Zelenskyy speaking before Congress about peace and freedom, and then President Putin talking about how Russia will never bow to the West. It doesn`t sound like the language of somebody who`s preparing to negotiate a peace deal.

And there`s a lot of skepticism, even from that report in "The Financial Times," what would happen to Crimea and the Donbass region? That is still a point of contention. Would there be legally binding security guarantees for Ukraine in whatever this new security arrangement looks like?

I spoke to a Ukrainian military official today who raised the point, saying, listen, we gave up our nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War, and we got security guarantees then that our country would not be invaded. How good has that been? Not very. And so they want something much more legally binding. That might be difficult for the Russians.

And I think the third critique that I`m hearing, the third point of sort of fear that this is just a fig leaf, is that, is Russia just using these talks at the moment, as Bill Burns, the director the CIA has suggested, as a strategic moment to regroup and resupply?


Does he actually have any intention at all of negotiating, or is this just giving him time to regroup his own forces in the country? So, there`s quite a bit of skepticism that I`m hearing about these negotiations.

MELBER: Very fair note, Katty. And you mentioned how Putin sounds. We had a little bit of Zelenskyy there to the Congress. It`s a big deal from the American side and, obviously, what he is seeking, which is more aid, more help beyond just money.

He also tried to really put this conflict on the grander scale that Americans might relate to, with their own world history, their own potential existential threats. Let`s take a look at that part.


ZELENSKYY (through translator): I remember your national memorial in Rushmore.

Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember September the 11th. I have a dream, these words are known to each of you today. I can say, I have a need. I need to protect our sky.


MELBER: And, Katty, he knows better than most that this has been rebuffed and rejected over and over by the West. When you see him making that a part of his core pitch to the Congress today, what does that tell you?

KAY: I mean, it`s also, in a way, a negotiation, right? He`s the leader of people who have been bombed and killed. It would almost be negligent of him not to ask for more than he knows he`s going to get.

He`s going to throw everything at this and try and get what he can out of it. That`s his job as president of Ukraine. He realizes that the no-fly zone -- the military officials I spoke to today were very frustrated about that. They really want the no-fly zone. They may settle for these more effective anti-aircraft missiles for the drones that the White House is now giving as well.

It`s possible that, at that NATO meeting, they may even get the jets. The logistics around that would need sorting out. But they are adamant that this is what they need. And it`s no coincidence that he raised Pearl Harbor and 9/11, both attacks, of course, on America that came from the skies. And he said, we need our skies protected.

At the moment, he`s not getting everything you asked for. He got a standing ovation, but he`s not getting that no-fly zone. And NATO`s made it clear too that they`re not going to sign up for that.

MELBER: Right, and, as you say, speaking both to those gathered members of Congress and potentially their constituents, it`s trying to really help everyone understand what this means. What would the American version of this, being hit, as Katty said, from the sky?

Ambassador, on a day where Joe Biden, the president, almost blindly says Putin is a war criminal, it almost sounded as if he were saying, of course he`s a war criminal, it`s not a big claim, what do you, as an experienced diplomat, say to the criticism from not only Russia, but also China and other countries, that the United States leans on human rights principles, international law mostly in the direction of its geopolitics, that we don`t hear as much from the last or this administration about the Saudis` war crimes, human rights abuses, et cetera?

You`re well familiar with all this. For our viewers, I`m curious your response.

TEFFT: Well, I personally believe very strongly that there are war crimes here.

It`s hard to watch the horrible images on TV and not come to that conclusion. I would also say, Ari, having spent 45 years in the Foreign Service, I know that to actually make a finding of a war crime, it`s necessary to satisfy legal requirements.

Now, this gets into a lot of legal nice, fine points.


TEFFT: And we`re not going to do that here tonight.


MELBER: Ambassador, I`m going to jump in. Ambassador, I`m just going to jump in to make sure we get you on it, because I think the key question here that I`m posing is not -- you started answering, are there -- is there evidence of war crimes? Yes, we have reported that.


MELBER: But do you have a response to, for example, the Chinese government and other sort of adversarial governments whose diplomats, your counterparts, say the U.S. only cares about certain war crimes?

TEFFT: Well, I know, if you go back in American history, there`s been a lot of cases where we have not been as forthright as we should have been.

And I certainly would acknowledge those. But I think, if we`re going to be credible as a nation, we have to be consistent. We have to try to be able to be honest and straightforward. I think that this administration has been quite clear about genocide in Xinjiang among the Uyghurs. And I think what we heard the president today was to take away all of the niceties, the legal wraps, and say, yes, this looks like work crimes to me.

And so I know they`re gathering information, so that they can take this to courts. I would just note, today, the International Court of Justice made it very clear that Russia should withdraw from Ukraine. There was a quite solid judgment there. But I don`t expect Putin to follow through.


I think we need to be very consistent and forthright about these things, not just with Russia, but with anyone else. That said, this is a pretty extraordinary case, beyond I think, other human rights violations.

And I think we need to be very clear and forthright.

MELBER: Understood. And wanted to get your view on that. These are conversations that are happening not only around the world and among diplomats, but at a lot of people`s dining room table, thinking through, what is this? How bad is it? And what`s the U.S.` long-term position going to be in something where it`s not going away right now, when you look at how Putin is acting.

Ambassador Tefft and Katty Kay, thanks to both of you.

TEFFT: Thank you, Ari.

MELBER: Appreciate it.

Our coverage continues now live from Lviv in the West of Ukraine.

Cal Perry is there. This is near the Polish border -- Cal.

CAL PERRY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Ari, while those speeches were going on, you had Zelenskyy, you had Putin side by side giving those speeches, we had a series of devastating attacks on civilians here across the eastern part of the country, starting in Mariupol, our viewers now very familiar with that town.

The bombardment continues, but specifically and, as you mentioned, a theater they`re coming under an airstrike. This is a place where hundreds of civilians, maybe 1,000 civilians were taking shelter, many of them children. We understand from local officials that airstrike actually collapsed the entranceway to the building, which is making it very hard to find out who survived that attack.

Just to the northwest of that in a place called Zaporizhzhia -- our viewers may remember this is the place that has that nuclear power plant -- there is an intersection there that civilians were using to flee Mariupol. That intersection came under attack, at least five civilians there wounded.

It is emblematic of the attacks we see across the country on civilians as they flee. And, finally, in Chernihiv, this breadline, we heard from the American Embassy in Kyiv that Russian forces opening -- quote -- "fire" on people waiting for bread, at least 10 people dead there, the pictures incredibly devastating, showing civilians there laying on the ground.

Ukrainian state TV is leading with that attack this hour, Ari.

MELBER: Cal Perry, both on the devastation there and how it is being understood and transmitted within Ukraine, which we appreciate from your coverage on the ground.

And, Cal, as always, please stay safe.

Coming up, we have a special guest from the Biden administration, from the State Department, Ned Price, on what we saw there in that unusual and striking diplomacy directly to the United States Congress.

Also tonight, I can tell you we have an expert I`m sure you have heard of if you follow all this stuff, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. She was also at the heart of the first Trump impeachment and is skilled and knowledgeable about all of these diplomatic challenges in that region. She`s my guest live tonight.

There`s also some new comments from that anti-war protester you may have heard about who crashed that Russian newscast on why she says she is worried legitimately for her own safety in Putin`s Russia.




ZELENSKYY: I am addressing President Biden. You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.


MELBER: President Zelenskyy there making a direct appeal to President Biden during this historic speech to the American Congress. That was just today.

And we have a very special guest in THE BEAT right now, someone who`s quite busy, state Department spokesperson Ned Price.

Thanks for joining me.


MELBER: Let`s get right to it. What is President Zelenskyy getting from the U.S., from your administration here, the Biden administration, and what isn`t he getting, and why?

PRICE: Well, Ari, as you heard today from the administration, the -- our Ukrainian partners are getting a massive, unprecedented amount of defensive security assistance.

We have announced more than a billion dollars of security assistance in the past week, $2 billion since the start of this administration. So what does that boil down to? It boils down to anti-aircraft, anti-tank, anti-armor systems, the surface-to-ground systems that our Ukrainian partners have been asking for, in addition to small arms and munitions.

These are the very systems that the Ukrainians need, have said they need to defend themselves against Russian planes, against Russian rockets, against Russian missiles, against Russian artillery, the same weapon systems that continue to rain down and to cause so much destruction.

The Ukrainians have proven that they`re able to use all of these systems to good effect. And I think we have seen that in some of the lack of progress that the Russians have been unable to achieve in the weeks since the invasion began.

MELBER: President Zelenskyy still appealing for a no-fly zone, as we showed in our broadcasts and people may have seen. The Biden administration and other outside experts have said that the reason that`s a bad idea is it could lead to a hot war with Russia.

At this point, is your view that will never happen, that the United States will never participate in a no-fly zone, and thus Ukraine has to really just accept that?

PRICE: Look, Ari, our goal here is to put an end to this conflict, to put an end to this brutal war and to do everything we can at the same time to see to it that it doesn`t expand.

The thing about a no-fly zone is, a no-fly zone is combat. A no-fly zone would require a NATO pilot, it would require an American pilot to shoot- down a Russian pilot if that pilot were to fly into prohibited airspace. That would in turn lead to an expanded conflict, a conflict that would implicate even more lives.

So we`re focused on doing two things. We`re pursuing two complementary tracks towards one overriding objective. That is bringing this war to a close. On the one hand, we are providing our Ukrainian partners with the security assistance they need, including these surface-to-air systems, these anti-aircraft systems, so that they can protect themselves from the air, from missiles, rockets, planes from the air.

Second, we are doing everything we can to put pressure on the Russian Federation. President Biden likes to say that big nations don`t bluff. President Putin now knows that the United States wasn`t bluffing, our allies and partners weren`t bluffing when we spoke before the invasion of the unprecedented costs that would befall his economy and his financial system.

You can look across any number of metrics. The Russian stock market has been closed for several weeks now. It`ll be closed at least for the remainder of this week, presumably to prevent capital flight. International companies are fleeing by the dozen. The ruble is virtually worth less. It`s literally worth less than a penny at this moment. Russia`s credit rating is junk. It`s on the verge of default.


I could go on and on and on. The point is that is, as long as the Russian Federation escalates its tactics in Ukraine, we are prepared to do the same, prepared to impose even more costs on Moscow, on the Kremlin, on President Putin, all of those who are supporting this war effort.

MELBER: You speak for the State Department.

What is the State Department`s position these open negotiations that we keep hearing about, which potentially could offer some sort of respite? But it`s also hard to know whether Russia is serious, as experts have pointed out on our air tonight.

PRICE: Well, Ari, our concern has been the same concern that you have heard from our Ukrainian partners.

And that is the fact, the strong possibility that what the Russians are engaging in is something akin to the pretense of diplomacy, in other words, going through the motions, going through the meetings in order to continue the violence, the onslaught that they are perpetrating against the state of Ukraine, the people of Ukraine, and the government of Ukraine.

What we need to see happen, less words and more action the ground.


PRICE: We need to see de-escalation. We need to see a diminution of the violence.


PRICE: We need to see what we have heard from some Russian officials translated into...

MELBER: Into action, yes.

PRICE: ... into action.

MELBER: Before I lose you, because I know your time is short, my final question, we saw President Biden say today Vladimir Putin is a war criminal.

What, if anything, is the United States doing about that new marker that the president laid down?

PRICE: Well, so the president, as he often does, was speaking from the heart.

And when you`re speaking as a human speaking from the heart, and you see these searing images, the strike against a maternity hospital in Mariupol, even the idea of a strike and maternity hospital being in the same sentence should be something that is incomprehensible.

But, every day, residential buildings are being struck. Neighborhoods are being struck, schools...

MELBER: So, is there an action connected to that claim?

PRICE: There absolutely is an action. It is the security assistance that we are providing to our Ukrainian partners, so that they can continue to defend themselves to halt the Russian advances, to stymie what President Putin is trying to do and, on the other hand, as I mentioned before, to continue to put that pressure on the Kremlin, on President Putin personally, on the oligarchs and cronies who surround him, to continue to put the squeeze on them, with one singular purpose in mind.

Pushing them towards the negotiating table, where, as a result of this pressure, it is our goal to see to it that they act in good faith, with clarity of purpose in trying to bring this conflict to a close.

MELBER: Ned Price with the Biden State Department, thank you for making time tonight, sir.

PRICE: Thanks, Ari. Appreciate it.

MELBER: Absolutely.

Coming up, we look past the airstrikes to some glimmers of hope for peace. And we`re joined by the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine -- you remember her as a star witness in Donald Trump`s impeachment and an expert on the region -- when we`re back in just one minute.


MELBER: The world`s eyes are understandably on Ukraine.

And we turn now to a very special guest for that region, the career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch, who served in the State Department for over three decades. That means, of course, across presidents in both parties.

President Obama first named her ambassador to Ukraine in 2016, where she remained in that post until President Trump ousted her in 2019. But it was after a sordid smear campaign led by Rudy Giuliani, who was asserting that she was a problem in protecting what was basically the integrity of U.S. foreign policy in not allowing a tit-for-tat, quid pro quo investigation of the Bidens.

Trump also disparaged her in that infamous call with Zelenskyy, saying she was bad news and would go through some things, a dark warning about someone who was a servant, a public servant, and his own employee. She was a star witness in Donald Trump`s impeachment.


MARIE YOVANOVITCH, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: I do not understand Mr. Giuliani`s motives for attacking me, nor can I offer for an opinion whether he believed the allegations he spread about me.


Clearly, no one at the State Department did. The State Department is being hollowed out from within, at a competitive and complex time on the world stage. This is not a time to undercut our diplomats.


MELBER: Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch joins me now.

She also has a book out, "Lessons From the Edge."

Thank you for being here.

YOVANOVITCH: Thank you for having me.

MELBER: Absolutely.

I have been reading what you have been writing and saying. One thing that jumps right out, because you know this region so well. This is your business. This is your expertise.

You said that you would have expected this Russian military to be more -- quote -- "competent" in its opening invasion. Tell me about that and what you see here as its lackluster performance, even amidst, of course, some great tragedies.


So, back when I was in government, we would always remind ourselves that the Russians aren`t 10 feet tall, that this is -- if it ever came to that, this is an adversary that could be dealt with. And I think that`s what we`re seeing on the ground in Ukraine somewhat.

But it is somewhat surprising how lackluster the Russian military performance has been. And I would have expected more from them.

MELBER: Why do you think they are struggling? Is it the endemic corruption and other issues across Russia, writ large, which the military may not be exempt from? Is it the nature of this particular conflict, which relates to sort of the ephemeral issues, morale and what they`re being asked to do, including against some Russian-speaking individuals, something else?

What do you see as accounting for it?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, I think it`s all of the above.

I mean, there is a Soviet/Russian model of war. And I think what we`re seeing is that they have never fully modernized, never fully reformed. They don`t have an NCO corps. And so you have generals in battle, apparently, who are being killed. And you have a military that is uninformed, unskilled, and not motivated, as you noted.

So I think there`s that combination. And then I think what we`re also seeing is the effects of corrosive corruption over many decades, where you think the military supply chain is providing certain equipment, but it`s actually going into the pockets of generals and others. And so all of that weakens the military effort.

And then I think they just -- the Russian military and Vladimir Putin himself under -- completely underestimated the Ukrainians. Their view is that Ukrainians don`t exist as a people, that there is no right to a separate country. And I think they thought that they were going to be greeted as liberators, that it would be a fast, quick war, and it would be very positive for the Russians.

And what they found is massive resistance. They found that the comedian that perhaps they have underestimated all along, and including when he became president, that he is a wartime president, and is uniting the country and strengthening and inspiring the Ukrainian people and the world.

So I think there are a number of miscalculations that the Russians made. And the last serious miscalculation is, they underestimated the international wealth and resolve of the United States and the allies and partners that I think President Biden has done a great job of bringing together.

MELBER: Well, it`s very interesting, the way you walk us through those interconnected factors, Ambassador.

And, specifically, the possible misperceptions of Russian elites and Putin helps people perhaps understand what`s going on, because it almost looks irrational, although we have many ways to track exactly what motivates these leaders, but irrational to pick a war of choice, to do this invasion.

But, as you have just explained, in part, that`s because they rationally, based on different expectations and evidence, thought this would go better. Now they`re here in the soup, in the thick of this.

With regard to the sanctions, again, you are an advocate of diplomacy, of soft power, of ways to constrain the bad -- the bad guys, if you will, but not always doing that by starting a war. What is your specific assessment of this broad sanctions policy, Europe and U.S.? We heard from a current State Department official earlier tonight. You`re a former.

But what`s your assessment of this sanctions regime? Where do you think it ranks, in terms of more or less effective of global efforts we have seen in the last several decades?

YOVANOVITCH: I thought that Ned Price`s summary was excellent. And, frankly, I have never seen anything like take this as a sanctions regime, certainly not against a country like Russia. And I have been very impressed.


We were promised that if Russia would invade, that there will be severe sanctions. And I think that`s what Russia is getting. And I think it is painful. And my heart goes out to the Russian people who are the ones that are paying the price for this huge miscalculation, these war crimes.

But I think, somehow, we need to make it clear to Vladimir Putin that, this time, he is not going to get away with this. He got away with it in Georgia in 2008. He got away with it the first time he invaded Ukraine in 2014. He cannot succeed this time.


And you`re ticking off that history that so well from doing this work. It may have been, to many Americans, and even people in Europe, not front burner, because it didn`t have the global cataclysm that we have seen now.

I also want to play a little bit of your moment there in the impeachment. We started. We have been talking foreign policy and your book. But here`s some of what you said about diplomats in a situation that I can only imagine you never thought your public service career would take you into, which was being this witness and target in a question of whether the current -- the then-president should have been removed from office for abuse of power, among other offenses.

Let`s take a look.


YOVANOVITCH: As Foreign Service professionals are being denigrated and undermined, the institution is also being degraded. This will soon cause real harm, if it hasn`t already.

If we lose our edge, the U.S. will inevitably have to use other tools even more than it does today. And those other tools are blunter, more expensive, and not universally effective.


MELBER: From what I can tell, fact-check, true.

I don`t want to drag you too far into the past. You lived through it. You have written about it. People know about it.

But with regard to the present, Ambassador, is it your view that President Trump`s foreign policy and attitude and posture towards Putin and Russia emboldened Putin further? And given your extensive experience, how do you compare the current administration`s Russia policy to Trump`s?

YOVANOVITCH: I think that Vladimir Putin -- the first thing I want to say is that official U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine was very strong in the Trump administration. It was basically a continuation of the Obama policy. So it was strong.

But it was clear that President Trump had his own personal views about Ukraine. And that became very public in the summer of 2019, with the release of the call, the perfect call, transcript, where he was using Ukraine as a pawn for his own personal and political gain.

I think that sends a signal to autocrats like Putin that this is not a president who is working on behalf of the American people. This is a president who`s using his office for personal gain. So, one can make accommodations.

And so Putin got that message loud and clear. And I think he thought Ukraine policy would be in the right place. All he needed to do was keep the war in the East on like a low boil -- a low simmer, rather than the boil that we`re seeing now.


YOVANOVITCH: And I think the other part of it is that President Trump had very strong and negative views about NATO. And we have heard from a number of previous administration officials around President Trump that, had he been elected president, reelected as president, he would probably would have pulled us out of NATO.

MELBER: You know, I mean, which is hard to even fathom right now.

YOVANOVITCH: There`s no need for Vladimir Putin to...


YOVANOVITCH: Yes, hard to believe. But there`s no need for Putin...

MELBER: Well, Ambassador, before I lose you, that`s the last thing I wanted to get you on, which is kind of the trickiest question.

But take it all in and you say, OK, if that`s true -- and it sounds true -- and Putin was emboldened, and he had this attitude from this friendly or warmer president, do you know why he didn`t try to go in and do this longstanding goal in Ukraine earlier, while Trump was president?

YOVANOVITCH: I think he was getting what he needed.

I think he was getting what he needed from Trump. And so he didn`t need to escalate into a war. But then Zelenskyy was elected president. I think Putin thought that he could manipulate Zelenskyy. He was sorely disappointed there.

Then Trump lost. Biden came into office, clearly with a different world view, one that is all about diplomacy and partnerships with allies and other partners. And he understood the importance of Ukraine.

And I think Putin looked around. And he has a view towards his own legacy and an obsession with Ukraine, so I think that was one part of it. But I think the other part of it also is looking to his future. He was hoping to shore up his own popularity standings for the 2024 presidential elections.


So I think there`s a combination of many different things that are at work here.

MELBER: Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, really, really edifying listening to you. Thanks for making the time.


MELBER: Appreciate it.

Coming up: Russia`s crackdown on the truth and that Russian TV anti-war protester speaking out about government retaliation.

Stay with us.


MELBER: We have covered many aspects of this war.

There are also three journalists who`ve been killed in the last few days. That`s one aspect of what it takes, these brave colleagues of ours and competitors on other news outlets who go do this work.


And, in Russia, it`s a different kind of risk when it comes to reporting or any free press and free speech. Putin has signed this law that punishes anyone who spreads what it, the Russian government or Kremlin, declares as false information.

But it turns out that much of that involves, well, itself pushing their own lies, including demanding people not referred to the fact that this is an invasion and a war.

Then there`s that journalist who made global headlines crashing a Russian news show with that anti-war sign. She says she fears retaliation.


MARINA OVSYANNIKOVA, FORMER EDITOR, CHANNEL ONE (through translator): I am concerned for my safety, if I`m honest.

I`m quite -- I believe in what I did, but now I understand the scale of the problems that I will have to deal with. And, of course, I`m extremely concerned for my own safety.


MELBER: We hear from the military experts, the diplomats, so many different aspects to this war.

We have a special conversation now that is a little different with Suzanne Nossel. She`s the CEO of PEN America, which defends free speech and human rights.

Welcome to THE BEAT.


MELBER: Why does free speech matter more during war?

NOSSEL: Well, there`s a deliberate creation of a fog of war. That`s what Vladimir Putin is doing.

He has not only, as you say, threatened to punish people with up to 15 years in prison for simply calling the invasion of Ukraine a war, which clearly is. That is now banned as fake news. But he`s also forced the shutdown of independent news outlets. He`s led foreign news outlets, in some instances, to withdraw their correspondents from reporting inside Russia, for fear that, if they continue to do so, they could be brought up on criminal charges and potentially jailed.

He`s also gone to war with social media companies. So we now have Facebook withdrawn. We have Instagram completely banned inside Russia. It was a major source of news and information for the Russian citizenry, and now considered out of bounds because of rule changes that the platform had made that the Russian government disagreed with.

And so we have this blanket, a kind of Iron Curtain of disinformation and a blackout on accurate truthful, news inside Russia. In Ukraine, we have hot war, which is catching journalists in the crossfire. And we have seen the devastating deaths of three journalists just over the last few days, the injury of a fourth, and, unfortunately, probably more to come if this continues.

MELBER: Right.

And you and PEN America work on many of these issues. It`s striking to consider that we`re looking at these bombs, these air raids, these killings, and yet we`re dealing with a nuclear power with Putin that`s really threatened by words, by signs, by what your organization fights to defend around the world.

What does that tell us and remind us? Because it`s easy to feel either hopeless or cynical. And yet, Suzanne, it would seem that, I mean, part of your group`s mission is based on the idea not only that this is worthwhile, but that it might even be effective if people can speak their own truth, and, in this case, perhaps oppose a war that many people in both Russia and Ukraine do not want to have.

NOSSEL: No, absolutely.

I mean, we really see in the context of this war that it`s not just a military conflagration, but it`s really a war over narrative and over truth. What is the truth of Ukraine`s history? Does this country have a claim to independence and sovereignty?

Do they belong under the thumb of Moscow? That is what is being debated. And Putin has been on a mission for years to try to suppress alternative narratives, to punish and ban whether it`s dissidents or journalists, media outlets, authors who contest the narrative that he`s trying to put forward, one that reinforces his power, one that argues for a resurgence of Russian power to bring back the glory days of the Soviet Union, one that rejects the claims of Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia to their independent identities and cultures.

And so, as much as it`s raging on the battlefield, this is a war for hearts and minds, both inside Russia to sustain the momentum to keep up the fight when it`s not going well. And, in Ukraine, I think there was a grave miscalculation in terms of where the hearts and minds stood and that the opposition that he is meeting with is only intensifying, and what he is doing is deepening the antipathy toward Russia.


I mean, these are two cultures that are very much enmeshed. There`s so many family members that cut across Russia and Ukraine. Yet, instead of bringing them together, he is driving a deepening wedge.

MELBER: Yes, I think you lay that out in a really important way. I hope people are listening. And I know it`s part of the work that you do.

PEN America`s Suzanne Nossel, thank you.

NOSSEL: Thank you, Ari.

MELBER: Absolutely.

When we come back, we turn to American news and why Steve Bannon is in trouble.


MELBER: There`s a lot going on in the world, but we also turn to a domestic news update.

Steve Bannon was back in court today. This relates to that criminal contempt prosecution by the Biden Justice Department. And he spoke to reporters after an over-two-hour hearing, where the judge ruled DOJ must turn over legal opinions on former officials being generally immune from these kinds of congressional subpoenas, that Bannon will get that.


STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: I`m not just doing this for me. This is not MAGA. This is not America first. This is for everybody.


And the behavior of the FBI and, quite frankly, DOJ has been outrageous to my attorney, right, and the attorney-client privilege and everything that they did.

And that`s going to be worked out in court, but it`s obviously outrageous.


MELBER: Bannon referring to the way his lawyer might have some actual attorney-client privilege material and arguing that he disregarded the subpoena based on lawyers` counsel.

Politico reports that the judge did seem more likely to side with the Justice Department in denying that kind of defense. But then that issue was tabled, which means more time for it in order to hear briefs from both sides, about whether some of this could become moot or irrelevant.

Bottom line, Steve Bannon is on defense, because this Justice Department is backing the January 6 probe in Congress, which has a lot of open threads they`re pulling on.

We will be right back.