President Joe Biden reiterated on Monday that he was not announcing a change in US policy when he had said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” – a remark that caught American and international officials off-guard, sending the White House into clean-up mode over the weekend.
“I just was expressing my outrage. He shouldn’t remain in power, just like, you know, bad people shouldn’t continue to do bad things,” Biden said in response to a question from CNN’s Kaitlan Collins at the White House. “But it doesn’t mean we have a fundamental policy to do anything to take Putin down in any way.”
Two days after Biden’s return from Europe, the improvised comment made at the end of an address in Warsaw about Putin – “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” – has hovered over the White House.
The White House and Biden have repeatedly tried to downplay the remark. The administration and allies say Biden wasn’t calling for regime change to remove Putin from power. Rather, they argue that Biden was saying Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over neighboring nations.
“I was talking to the Russian people,” Biden said on Monday at the White House when asked by Collins why he ad-libbed the line.
“The last part of the speech was talking to Russian people,” he said. “I was communicating this to, not only the Russian people but the whole world. This is … just stating a simple fact that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable. Totally unacceptable. And the way to deal with it is to strengthen and keep NATO completely united and help Ukraine where we can.”
Biden emphasized that he was speaking from the heart following a meeting with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw.
“I’d just come from being with those families,” he said, adding, “I make no apologies for it.”
The President also dismissed the suggestion that his remarks might escalate the conflict in Ukraine. Biden said the suggestion that other leaders may take issue with his unscripted remarks during his address in Poland has not weakened NATO.
“NATO has never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever been as strong as it is today,” Biden said.
The improvised comment about Putin wasn’t planned and surprised aides who were watching Biden’s speech on television or at the event site. And the words hadn’t been something Biden raised as potentially including in his speech – previously, US officials were adamant that changing the government in Moscow wasn’t one of their objectives. In closed-door meetings earlier in the week, Biden told fellow leaders at NATO that he did not want to escalate the West’s confrontation with Russia.
Yet his off-the-cuff line did more to pit him directly against Putin than anything so far in the conflict.
‘He’s a butcher’
People who spoke to Biden before and after the speech described him as personally affected after visiting with refugees at the national stadium in Warsaw, where women asked him to pray for the men – husbands, sons and brothers – who had stayed behind to fight.
Asked by reporters traveling with the President what seeing the refugees made him think as he deals with Putin every day, Biden responded, “He’s a butcher.”
Directly ahead of the speech, the President had also been briefed by officials 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 hardly coincidental as Biden was visiting Warsaw.
Despite the Biden administration’s quick walk-back of the comments about Putin’s power, they obscured the rest of Biden’s speech, which focused on reassuring NATO allies the US would come to their defense if Putin pushes further into Europe. White House aides had been working on writing the speech for days, including in the hours leading up to the address.
Vinay Reddy, Biden’s top speechwriter, and Mike Donilon, his senior adviser who helps craft the President’s major speeches, both traveled to Europe with Biden and were involved in writing the speech.
A pattern emerges
The clarification the White House issued on Saturday was at least the third time an administration official felt obliged to clean up remarks Biden made that appeared, on their own, startling and misaligned with US foreign policy.
As he was hailing the heroism of the Ukrainians, Biden told US troops, “You’re going to see when you’re there” – even though he’s vowed American forces won’t be entering the conflict directly. Afterward, a spokesman said nothing had changed: “The President has been clear we are not sending US troops to Ukraine.”
On Monday, Biden pushed back on any suggestion he’d told US troops stationed in Poland they were going to Ukraine, telling a reporter, “We were talking about helping train the troops that are the Ukrainian troops that are in Poland. That’s the context.”
A White House official told CNN later Monday that there are Ukrainian soldiers in Poland who are interacting on a regular basis with US troops, which is what Biden had referred to earlier in the day when he had sought to explain his previous remark. The interaction is in regard to security assistance being sent from the US to Ukraine.
In Europe, after Biden had said he would respond “in kind” to the use of chemical weapons by Russia in Ukraine, Sullivan assured reporters the United States has “no intention of using chemical weapons period, under any circumstance.”
Biden has a well-established pattern of speaking out of hand, though perhaps never with stakes so high. White House officials said before Biden’s speech the President had been working intently behind the scenes to reinforce cooperation among his counterparts.
“He sleeps way less on these kinds of trips than maybe other trips because he’s just going, going, going – like, wants to talk to the next leader; you know, take the next briefing,” Sullivan said Friday midway through Biden’s flight from Brussels to Rzeszów, in southeastern Poland, where he was meeting with American soldiers.
Europe still measuring its reaction to Biden’s remarks
It remains to be seen exactly how the remark will affect the conflict. A European diplomat suggested Biden’s statement would not have a broader impact on the Kremlin’s handling of the war.
“(The Russians are) going to worry if we start bringing tanks into Ukraine. They won’t care about this,” the diplomat said.
The diplomat also told CNN, “Biden said something a lot of people believe.”
“In the short term, it might be a bit uncomfortable, but it could be a bit helpful for the Russians to know. … Ultimately, Putin can’t stay in power, right? He’s made a decision to invade another country and he’s breaking all sorts of legal agreements he’s signed up (for),” they said.
A defense official from a Baltic country was pleased to hear Biden’s comments, saying, “The West should not be afraid to be ambiguous. It would have given some in Russia hope that the regime can change.”
“Russia is always ambiguous, always blurs lines between war and peace. We should also exercise that more,” the defense official added.
A European official whose office has engaged with Putin recently said they did not believe Biden’s comments would complicate things, but it’s difficult to say for certain. “At least (we) haven’t noticed a difference,” the official said. “We probably need to see but so far haven’t noticed anything different.”
Biden said Monday that he doesn’t care what Putin thinks about the comment, saying, “He’s going to do what he’s going to do.”
“Given his recent behavior, people should understand he is going to do what he thinks he should do, period,” Biden said. “He’s not effected by anyone else, including, unfortunately, his own advisers. This is a guy who goes to the beat of his own drummer. And the idea he is going to do something outrageous because I called him for what he was and what he’s doing, I think, is just not rational.”
‘I wouldn’t use terms like that’
Officially, the Kremlin’s response came from spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said the fate of the Russian ruler is “not to be decided by Mr. Biden.”
Peskov then said on Monday that the comments “are certainly causing concern,” adding, “We will continue to closely monitor the statements of the US President. We carefully note them and will continue to do so.”
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “We heard President Biden loud and clear, that the US will aid and will be with Ukraine in this fight.”
“We clearly understand in Ukraine that anyone who’s a war criminal, who attacks a neighboring country, who’s doing all these atrocities together with all the Russians that are involved definitely cannot stay in power in a civilized world. Now, it’s all up to all of us to stop Putin,” she added.
French President Emmanuel Macron – who said last week that France was “stepping up” the work to prevent escalation of the war in Ukraine but has ruled out the French military’s direct participation – suggested Biden’s comments were not helpful for diplomatic efforts.
“I wouldn’t use terms like that because I’m still in talks with President Putin,” Macron said during an interview on Sunday with French Channel France 3.
“Our goal is to stop the war Russia launched in Ukraine, while avoiding a war and escalation,” the French President added.
On the domestic front, Democrats largely repeated the White House’s clarification. But some Republicans criticized the President for the comments.
As he praised Biden’s speech in Poland, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, “There was a horrendous gaffe right at the end of it. I just wish he would stay on script.”
“This administration has done everything they can to stop escalating,” Risch said, adding, “There’s not a whole lot more you can do to escalate than to call for regime change.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told “State of the Union,” “I know it was off-the-cuff, but whatever the President says, it carries a lot of weight. … In this case, it sends a very provocative message to Mr. Putin.”
And Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, also told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Biden’s remark “plays into the hands of the Russian propagandists and plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” later adding that “we’re in a war situation, and so clarity is incredibly important.”
This story has been updated with additional developments on Monday.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Sarah Diab, Fred Pleitgen, Sarah Fortinsky and Ali Main contributed to this report.