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Week In Politics: Biden Announces Russia Sanctions, Troop Pullout From Afghanistan

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Yesterday, a reversal at the Justice Department. Attorney General Merrick Garland restored the use of consent decrees to address police abuses. The Trump administration had restricted the practice. Joining me to talk about this change and some other big moves by President Joe Biden this week is NPR's Ron Elving. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be with you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So we haven't seen consent decrees used this way since, well, the last administration Joe Biden was a part of. It has been a good while. Remind us of how the Justice Department can use this legal tool.

ELVING: Back in the Obama years, the Justice Department negotiated these consent decrees, as they're called, with a number of police departments, for example, in Ferguson, Mo., and in Baltimore, Md., after the deaths of two young Black men, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. This was a way to get police departments to commit to serious reforms, the kind of things that Randy Shrewsberry was just talking to you about - reforms to the way that police operate on the street, the way they treat people of color.

And this tool fell into disuse during the Trump administration, especially after an announcement of a change of policy in the fall of 2018. And now the Biden administration is bringing them back, and they will be part of the effort to deal with police tactics under the new attorney general, Merrick Garland.

ELLIOTT: Earlier this week, President Biden also announced an historic shift in U.S. foreign policy, a withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This is the end of a war that's lasted nearly 20 years. Is he just finishing what President Trump had started? What's his thinking here?

ELVING: In a sense, it is a continuation of the Trump commitment to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan. They had been talking about May 1 as a date to get out. And the U.S. had already come way down from the peak of 100,000 troops in that country at one point to about 2,500. And Biden said this week we would leave a small protective force for U.S. diplomats and aid workers, but otherwise, we're going to be out by September, which is when we mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which were, of course, the trigger for our long commitment in Afghanistan in the first place.

ELLIOTT: Biden and Trump may have been on the same page about getting out of Afghanistan, but they were not in the same book about dealing with Russia, as we're seeing this week. Can you give us a little compare and contrast, please, Ron?

ELVING: It's pretty stark. President Biden is setting out a new set of rules for the Russia relationship that include consequences for Russian actions, and Russian actions such as the hacking program known as SolarWinds and the efforts to interfere with U.S. elections in recent years. And the two countries have been exchanging the sort of brushback moves we used to see, such as sending diplomatic personnel back to their home countries. But it has not yet become a full-scale rupture on the scale of the Cold War, and Biden has indicated some willingness to sit down with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at some point yet to be determined.

ELLIOTT: And briefly, some confusion yesterday coming out of the White House. The Biden administration said it was going to stick with the Trump-era cap on refugees allowed in the U.S., and then it backtracked. What happened?

ELVING: During the campaign, the Biden team said they were going to bust through the 15,000 cap and maybe go to more than 100,000 a year. Then that came back to 60,000 a year earlier this year. And then this week, we heard that the system for processing and resettling refugees needed more time to get back up to speed. Maybe the cap would be OK for a while. And then the White House turned around after a storm of criticism and said there would be more refugees this year, and the old cap would be lifted. And we'll hear just how many - just how high the numbers might go next month.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you, NPR's Ron Elving.

ELVING: Thank you, Debbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.