President Biden’s declaration that Russian President Vladimir Putin «cannot remain in power» has overshadowed an otherwise successful trip to rally allies against Russian aggression and muddied the line between his personal feelings and official policy.
Biden on Monday attempted to personally correct his remarks, following up on efforts by the White House.
He said he was not announcing a policy change but was giving an emotional and moral statement after vising Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw who had fled their home country as Russia invades and indiscriminately attacks civilians.
«I want to make it clear: I wasn’t then, nor am I now articulating a policy change. I was expressing moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it,» Biden said Monday when asked about the comments, while insisting he was not «walking anything back.»
The unscripted remarks didn’t sit well with some lawmakers, and former government officials say it will be difficult for the White House to un-ring the bell on Biden’s comments at a precarious time for U.S.-Russia relations.
Biden, however, downplayed the risk of upending diplomatic relations with Russia or giving Putin fodder to escalate his attacks, growing visibly irritated when several reporters pressed him on the fallout as he delivered remarks on his budget proposal at the White House.
«This is a guy who goes to the beat of his own drummer,» Biden said. «And the idea that he is going to do something outrageous because I called him for what he was and what he’s doing is just not rational.»
It could be difficult for Biden and his team to undo potentially lasting damage from the remark on Saturday, which has dominated headlines.
Biden declared that «for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power» at the end of a 30-minute address in Warsaw, referring to Putin. Within minutes of the conclusion of his speech, a White House official said that comment was referring to Putin exercising power outside of Russia.
«I would say it is providing Putin with a powerful propaganda point that helps him portray the actions he’s taking as being directly in response to a threat to him and his government,» said Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement in the Obama administration. «That just is inexcusable for the president to at such a critical point in this crisis put an own goal into the net.»
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday called the statement «alarming.»
Former CIA Director David Petraeus said Sunday on ABC that the news cycle will move past Biden’s comments within a few days but could stick in Putin’s mind and «complicate matters going down the road.»
But Biden shrugged off that possibility on Monday, arguing Putin’s own escalating attacks on Ukrainian civilians were to blame for deteriorating diplomatic conditions.
«This is just stating a simple fact that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable, and the way to deal with it is to strengthen and keep NATO completely united and help Ukraine where we can,» Biden said.
Former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a Biden ally, argued that Biden’s comment was an emotional response after having spent time visiting with Ukrainian refugees.
«When he gave the speech looking into the faces of those children, one could be sympathetic of the view of how could you let Putin impact the lives of these children like he has?» said Carney, a senior policy advisor at Nossaman LLP.
«It’s not surprising actually, he is the commander in chief, but he is also the empathizer in chief. Certainly in his mind, the interactions he had with the Ukrainian refugee children, I think that he wanted to assure them that he was on their side and Putin is not,» he added.
Much of Biden’s speech involved placing blame for the Russian invasion directly on Putin and delivering a plea to the Russian people to not be welcoming or supportive of the war.
At one point, Biden pointedly declared, «It is Putin, it is Vladimir Putin who is to blame. Period.» But, calling for a regime change would be a shift in Biden’s thinking about Putin’s position in Russia.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested in a Twitter thread earlier this month that someone should assassinate Putin, the White House was quick to distance itself from that rhetoric and make clear it was not the policy of the government.
White House officials have for months insisted a diplomatic off-ramp to avoid conflict would always be available. Biden on Monday didn’t rule out meeting with Putin at some point, depending on the topic.
Biden and his team have carefully coordinated their response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with European allies, rolling out sanctions together and avoiding escalation. But his comments on Saturday caught some foreign leaders off-guard.
French President Emmanuel Macron said for a successful withdrawal to take place «we can’t escalate either in words or actions.»
Britain’s education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, said in an interview after Biden’s remarks that Putin’s political fate should be left up to the Russian people.
Eric Ueland, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights under former President Trump, said Biden’s declaration complicates relations with Russia, regardless of how the White House has attempted to walk it back.
«The statement raised the existential stakes for Putin, and — no matter the U.S. climb down — adds complications to future dealings with Russia while making American diplomacy harder with other countries and blocs, which will wonder about hidden Biden agenda priorities lurking to be blurted out without notice and then immediately disavowed,» he said.