The White House got to work cleaning up Thursday after President Biden’s press conference remarks rocked both sides of the Atlantic by questioning the legitimacy of the US election and the West’s resolve against Russian aggression.
White House officials said Mr. Biden’s comments were misinterpreted and offered clarification that differed significantly from what the president had said.
Mr. Biden is known for making blunders, but his mistakes at Wednesday’s press conference struck at the heart of the US democratic process and its foreign policy. It also belied Mr Biden’s mantra that ‘a president’s words matter’.
Asked by The Washington Times why Mr Biden was not more careful in his remarks, Ms Psaki said he had sent a consistent message to US allies.
“I can assure you that allies and partners know exactly what the president’s position is,” she said. “They knew what it was like yesterday, they knew during the press conference, they knew after the press conference because we were closely engaged and worked closely with them for weeks on the growing military incursion or the threat posed by Russia.”
Asked if the time spent cleaning up the president’s remarks had hampered the White House’s ability to send a cohesive message, Ms Psaki replied that it “doesn’t take long to send a tweet.”
Ronald Rowland, who teaches presidential rhetoric at the University of Kansas, called the comments about Ukraine a “serious blunder.”
“It is important to fully understand the details of foreign policy when potential deterrence is involved,” he said. “Joe Biden is a skilled and empathetic speaker, but gaffes are relatively common.”
Mr. Biden and Ms. Psaki had to step up a gear to get the message back on track.
At the press conference in the East Room of the White House, the president shocked the world by saying that a “minor incursion” into Ukraine by Russia would have lesser consequences. He also challenged the US democratic process, saying the election “could easily be illegitimate” without enacting the ballot bills of Democrats, who died in the Senate on Wednesday night.
Ms Psaki issued a second statement clarifying Mr Biden’s remarks and made a rare appearance on Fox News to clarify the president’s positions.
Emily Horne, spokesperson for the National Security Council, posted a tweet pointing out that Mr. Biden distinguished between military and non-military actions such as a cyberattack.
Mr Biden absented himself from an unrelated event at the White House to assure his allies that he would not allow a “minor incursion”.
“I have been absolutely clear with President Putin,” Mr Biden told reporters. “He has no misunderstandings. If assembled Russian units cross the Ukrainian border, it’s an invasion.
“Let there be no doubt that if Putin makes that choice, Russia will pay a heavy price,” Biden said, noting there was also the potential for a cyberattack or paramilitary action. from Russia that would require a coordinated Russian response. United States and its allies.
Yet Mr. Biden’s statements have caused consternation from Washington to Kyiv.
“I was stunned by what the president said,” Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine, said in an interview. “I was shocked that he sent this kind of message to Vladimir Putin.”
Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said in a tweet that he feared it would cause confusion ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with his Russian counterpart in Geneva this week to discuss the Ukrainian crisis.
“I am very concerned about the weak and inconsistent message we have just heard [Mr. Biden] on Ukraine,” said Mr. Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Democrats have mostly remained silent. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York, told The Times he didn’t follow the president’s remarks because he was focused on getting the legislation through.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a scolding response to Mr. Biden.
“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” Mr Zelenskyy said on Twitter. “Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from loved ones. I say this as the president of a great power.
European leaders who joined the White House in an attempt to show a united front included British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen.
“Do not doubt that if Russia were to make any incursion into Ukraine, or on any scale, I think it would be a disaster, not only for Ukraine but for Russia. It would be a disaster for the world,” Mr Johnson told reporters in London.
Ms Psaki also got to work trying to correct Mr Biden’s comments about the US election.
“He absolutely does not predict that the 2022 election would be illegitimate,” Ms. Psaki said, adding the clarification that the election would only be illegitimate if states act as President Trump directed after the 2020 vote.
“What he meant was that the former president asked a number of states – seven or more, in fact – to overturn the result of an election. Now, obviously, if there’s an effort to do that, we have to fight against that. This is what we are committed to doing,” she said on Fox News. “He was not making predictions. He has faith in the American people.
The president’s Democratic allies have nevertheless tried to distance themselves from Mr. Biden’s rhetoric.
“I hope not,” said House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, when asked if the president’s comments cast doubt on the election. “Public confidence in elections is of crucial importance.”
It was not the first time that Ms. Psaki had to massage the president’s remarks. In October, she had to clarify several inaccuracies by Mr. Biden during a town hall on CNN.
• David R. Sands contributed to this report.