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Week in politics: Russia and China align; RNC justifies Jan. 6; job growth


Vladimir Putin distanced himself from the Ukraine crisis this past week - kind of. He was in Beijing and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, and each pledged cooperation as both countries contend with opposition from the West. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

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

SIMON: How do you read the significance of this meeting?

ELVING: It was quite a sight - wasn't it? - these two ruler-for-life autocrats, the big bosses for the most significant authoritarian countries in the world. They're dressed almost like teammates in all these videos, but it was not about sports. They put out a statement saying China supports Russia in opposing any NATO expansion, which means they support Russia's pressure on Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia supports China in its claims on the independent island of Taiwan. So a real threat there for at least two vulnerable democracies and for the U.S. and its democratic allies, although it remains to be seen just how far either Putin or Xi will actually go in support of the other's ambitions, especially where doing so might involve some pain for their own respective economies.

SIMON: And in Washington, D.C. - or stateside, I should say - the Republican National Committee suggests - suggested the January 6 attack on the Capitol was an example of, quote, "legitimate political discourse." How can a day in which a mob tried to stop certified electoral votes from being tabulated be deemed legitimate political discourse?

ELVING: You know, even in our times, Scott, with all the overheated political rhetoric, that phrase burned its way through. It's testing what's left of our capacity for shock because this was not loose talk at some QAnon meeting. This was the Republican National Committee, once thought to be the establishment within the establishment.

The phrase was added at the end of a resolution that's meant to spank two Republican members of Congress - Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger - who are the two Republicans on the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. That's what they're investigating. The resolution originally called on House Republican leaders to expel these two people from their ranks. So when they softened that language just a bit, they may have added this other phrase just to appease the hardcore Trump people at the meeting.

Still, it's hard to get your head around these words - legitimate political discourse - when we're talking about a riot that turned deadly in an effort to overturn the results of the election. So you have to wonder how many old-line Republicans are holding their heads in sorrow today or rolling over in their graves.

SIMON: And almost at the same hour, former Vice President Pence defended his refusal that day to block Congress from certifying the Electoral College results. How do you read his statement?

ELVING: Pence was in Florida talking to The Federalist Society. That's a highly influential group of conservative legal scholars. Pence had consulted with some of them prior to January 6, asking about what the Constitution would have him do. But, of course, he knew when he said this yesterday - he knew he had a wider audience and that a certain resident right there in Florida would hear it. And so this is not the last we will hear of this clash.

SIMON: And on Friday, Labor Department came out with new figures that showed not only a tremendous growth in jobs last month, but also November and December, when job growth didn't seem so spectacular. It actually was. What are we to make of this?

ELVING: The numbers did seem almost too good to be true, much as the weak numbers the last two months had seemed too downbeat to believe. But this was supposed to be the month that omicron really bit the job market. And instead, it turns out the job-creation machinery has been cranking all along. So the economy seems fine and more than fine, which means it's time for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to fight inflation, which it seemed quite resolved to do.

SIMON: More than 900,000 people have died across the country since the pandemic began two years ago. There is no minimization of that, but this week's - there are some signs that the impact of the virus might be easing, aren't there?

ELVING: There are some hopeful signs. The rate of infection is way down from a peak of more than a million cases a day in mid-January. We may have turned a corner on the spread of omicron, but the death rate is still disturbingly high, and it's concentrated among people not fully vaxxed and boosted. The booster in particular seems effective, but fewer than half of those eligible for boosters have gotten them.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks.

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 NPR.org.