Two days after President Joe Biden returned from Europe, an impromptu comment about Russian President Vladimir Putin hovers over the White House: “For God’s sake, this guy can’t stay in power.”
Soon, the White House and Biden himself tried to downplay the president’s comment, made at the end of his coronation address in Warsaw. The administration and allies say Biden was not advocating regime change to remove Putin from power. Instead, they argue, Biden was saying that Putin could not be allowed to exercise his power over neighboring countries.
The comment, which came at the end of a two-state visit to Europe aimed at cementing alliances, was unplanned and surprised aides who were watching Biden’s speech on television or at the scene. And the words weren’t something Biden suggested was likely included in his speech — previously, US officials had insisted that changing the government in Moscow was not one of their goals. In closed meetings earlier in the week, Biden told fellow NATO leaders he did not want to escalate the confrontation between the West and Russia.
However, his impressive streak has done more in confronting Putin head-on than anything else in the conflict so far.
Now, Biden and White House officials are expected to face questions about the comments.
The White House took the rare step of revealing that the president expects to answer questions when he delivers remarks on the budget proposal on Monday afternoon. Later on Monday, economic officials will brief the press in Washington.
People who spoke to Biden before and after the speech described him as personally touched after his visit with refugees at the National Stadium in Warsaw, where women asked him to pray for the men — husbands, sons and brothers — who stayed behind to fight.
When asked by reporters traveling with the president what seeing the refugees made him think as he dealt with Putin every day, Biden replied, “He’s a butcher.”
Immediately before the speech, officials also briefed the president about a series of missile strikes on a fuel depot in Lviv, Ukraine, a western city not far from the Polish border. The timing seemed no coincidence as Biden was visiting Warsaw.
Although the Biden administration quickly retracted comments about Putin’s authority, it withheld the rest of Biden’s speech, which focused on reassuring NATO allies that the United States would defend them if Putin made an incursion into Europe. White House aides had been working on the speech for several days, including the hours leading up to the speech.
Vinay Reddy, Biden’s speechwriter, and Mike Donilon, his chief adviser who helps craft the president’s keynote speeches, both traveled to Europe with Biden and co-wrote the speech.
The clarification released by the White House on Saturday was at least the third time an administration official has felt obligated to clean up statements made by Biden that, on their own, seemed startling and incompatible with US foreign policy.
While praising the heroism of the Ukrainians, Biden told American forces, “You’ll see when you’re there” — though he vowed that American forces would not enter the conflict directly. After that, a spokesman said that nothing had changed: “The president has made it clear that we will not send US forces to Ukraine.”
After Biden said he would respond “in kind” to Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Ukraine, Sullivan assured reporters that the United States “has no intention of using the chemical weapons period, under any circumstances.”
Biden has a well-established pattern of speaking out of control, although perhaps never at all at a very high risk. White House officials said before Biden’s speech that the president had been working closely behind the scenes to promote cooperation among his counterparts.
“He sleeps a lot more on these types of trips than he does on other trips because he’s just going, and he’s going — like, he wants to talk to the next commander; Sullivan said Friday in the middle of Biden’s trip from Brussels to Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, where he’s been meeting soldiers Americans.
Despite the White House’s rapid decline, the comments continued to provoke reactions from world leaders.
Before the White House released its clarification, the Kremlin released its own response, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying the fate of the Russian ruler “will not be decided by Mr. Biden.”
Peskov then said on Monday that the comments “certainly raise concern,” adding: “We will continue to closely monitor the statements of the American president. We are watching them carefully and will continue to do so.”
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “We have heard President Biden, loud and clear, that the United States will help and will be with Ukraine in this fight.”
“We clearly understand in Ukraine that a war criminal, attacking a neighboring country, doing all these atrocities with all the Russians involved certainly cannot stay in power in a civilized world. Now, it is up to all of us to stop Putin.”
French President Emmanuel Macron – who said last week that France was “stepping up” work to prevent an escalation of the war in Ukraine but ruled out the direct involvement of the French military – suggested that Biden’s comments were not helpful to diplomatic efforts.
“I will not use such terms because I am still in talks with President Putin,” Macron said during an interview on Sunday with France’s Channel 3 France.
“Our goal is to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine, while avoiding war and escalation,” the French president added.
On the home front, Democrats have largely repeated the White House clarification. But some Republicans criticized the president for his informal remarks.
Also praising Biden’s speech in Poland, Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, In an interview with “State of the Union” on CNN on Sunday“There was a terrible gaffe at the end of it. I just wish it stayed in his script.”
“This administration has done everything in its power to de-escalate,” Rich said, adding, “There is not much you can do to escalate more than to call for regime change.”
Representative Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told State of the Union, “I know it was a long way off, but whatever the president says, it carries a lot of weight. … In this case, it sends a message Too provocative to Mr. Putin.”
Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman also told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Biden’s remark “works in the interest of Russian preachers and benefits Vladimir Putin,” adding later, “We’re at war, so clarity is very important.”
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