President Joe Biden’s speechwriters likely anticipated a number of potential headlines to come out of his speech in Warsaw, Poland on Saturday. Perhaps it would be his galvanizing rhetoric about the global response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, in which “democracies of the world are revitalized.” Or his exhortation that Western allies ready themselves for the “new battle of freedom” ahead. Or maybe it would be his poetic pronouncement that “a dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never be able to erase the people’s love for liberty.”
The one-liner many news outlets ended up going with, however, was not even in the script.
As Biden neared the end of his 27-minute speech, the president veered from the teleprompter—and stated U.S. policy. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said of Putin. The line was reportedly unplanned and was interpreted by many as a suggestion that the president supports a regime change in Russia—something that senior administration officials have repeatedly said is not part of U.S. strategy. “The sound that could not be captured by the cameras after Biden spoke was dozens of staffers slapping the palms of their hands against their foreheads,” The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols wrote.
The White House immediately scrambled to explain the closing remark. Officials put out a statement claiming Biden’s “point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region” and which insisted that the president “was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken got involved with the clean-up duty on Sunday, reiterating to reporters that “we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else, for that matter.” In private, administration officials conceded the gaffe rippling across the globe was “just the latest example of Biden’s penchant for stumbling off message,” the Washington Post reported.
The cost of this particular ad-lib remains to be seen. But some have already raised concerns about the way Biden’s statement could be viewed by Putin and how it may undermine the restraint with which Washington has thus far shown in responding to the war. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was quick to rebuke Biden, telling the Associated Press, “It’s not up to the president of the U.S. and not up to the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia.” And even as the administration insisted that Biden’s remark wasn’t indicative of a policy shift, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, feared what it may reveal about the White House’s outlook. “What it tells me, and worries me, is that the top team is not thinking about plausible war termination,” he told the Post. “If they were, Biden’s head wouldn’t be in a place where he’s saying, ‘Putin must go.’ The only way to get to war termination is to negotiate with this guy.”
The closing remark in the Warsaw speech capped a trip that was supposed to be focused on rallying NATO counterparts to remain united with Ukraine and against Putin, while avoiding moves that could inflame tensions—a message that Biden largely stuck to during his time abroad. Biden in closed-door meetings at NATO and with foreign leaders repeated his vow not to send American troops into combat against Russia. He also remains opposed to using NATO or U.S. fighter jets to secure Ukraine’s airspace from Russian attacks, The New York Times reported.
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