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Week in politics: Biden in Saudi; Jan. 6 committee subpoenas Secret Service texts


President Joe Biden's been in the Middle East this week - a warm welcome in Israel. He gave $316 million in new aid to Palestinians, and then a silent fist bump - not a handshake - with the Saudi crown prince. Meanwhile, the January 6 committee issues new subpoenas. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: How do you see the main goal of the president's trip to the Middle East right now?

ELVING: Biden is still trying to establish himself on the world stage. As of next week, he's been president for 18 months and spent most of that time on domestic matters, understandably enough. The foreign flare-ups have had mostly to do with Afghanistan and Ukraine. Other regions of engagement around the world have not had the same attention as they've had in the past. So Biden wants to reassure Israel the U.S. stands with Israel even as he urges them to be more supportive of Ukraine and works to integrate them with some of their neighbors. And, of course, he also tried to show some sympathy to the Palestinians. That's one of the great fence straddles of U.S. foreign policy.

And finally, there's the visit to Saudi Arabia, which is largely about getting them to pump more oil into the world market and soften these awful prices we're all paying. But perhaps the most important country on this trip is not on this trip, Scott. And that's Iran, which is getting tighter with Russia and posing a threat to its Arab neighbors as well as to Israel.

SIMON: Ron, much has been made of the president's fist bump with the man he once had considered a pariah for authorizing the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. But the president says he brought that up with the crown prince face to face.

ELVING: Yes, he says he brought it up right off the top and that he still holds the crown prince personally responsible for Khashoggi. Be that as it may, the visual that everyone's taking away is that fist bump. This was surely discussed in advance by Biden and his people, but if you're going to do business with someone who has blood on his hands, are you really better off with just a fist bump than a handshake? Whatever the thinking, it's still a disheartening visual to look at - the latest in a long series of similar gestures American presidents have made because the Saudis matter so much.

SIMON: Ron, what do you make of the president's very low approval rating back home?

ELVING: Biden's numbers are down in the 30s because so many other significant numbers are up - inflation and gas prices. The inflation rate crept up over 9% in the last month. Next stop would be double digits. The main driver is energy, of course, and gas prices have actually been easing a bit in the past month, just slightly, but they're still the biggest single burden for millions of Americans and the reddest warning light on Biden's dashboard. Meanwhile, interest rates are also rising, and they're going to rise further. None of that helps a president's approval. Plus, we have to say Biden himself has thus far been a notably less imposing presence in the presidency. He suffers in that regard by comparison to his two predecessors, Trump and Obama, both of whom were more dynamic - each in his own way - and more compelling.

SIMON: Well, let's talk about Donald Trump's way of being compelling. January 6 committee just keeps revealing more damaging details about his attempts to stay in power. We learned last night the committee subpoenaed the Secret Service for text messages from the day before and day of the insurrection. What do we know?

ELVING: There's still much to be learned about this. There is a watchdog office within the Department of Homeland Security - an official called the inspector general. And he told the committee yesterday that when he tried to get the text messages exchanged by Secret Service officers on January 5 and 6, he was told they'd been erased. And the Secret Service says it was part of a device replacement program. Let's just say they were getting new phones. But one expects in this era and this line of work, there should be backups. So this raises suspicions, and the committee has issued a subpoena to the head of the Secret Service to try to learn more or to get to the bottom of this.

SIMON: Another committee hearing this week - what struck you about Tuesday's hearing?

ELVING: What struck me most was the clarity of that video testimony from Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel. He was present for some of the most dramatic moments in the post-election struggle. He was part of the pivotal meeting four days after the vote in the Electoral College had officially decided the election. That was December 18, 2020. Trump was still trying to find a way to stay in power, still willing to consider martial law or seizing voting machines, still willing to send a tweet inviting his hardcore supporters to a big protest in D.C. on January 6, promising them it would, quote, "be wild," end quote.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for