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The controversy around Biden’s off-script Putin comments, explained

Biden said Putin “cannot remain in power.” Now he’s walking it back.

President Joe Biden smiling and pointing from behind a press conference pair of microphones.
US President Joe Biden answers questions after introducing his budget request for fiscal year 2023 in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 28, 2022, in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President Biden’s off-script comment from Saturday that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” has continued to follow him around this week, as he’s sought to clarify that he didn’t exactly mean what he appeared to say.

Biden told reporters Monday that he was not “articulating a policy change” or “talking about taking down Putin,” and emphasized he badly wanted to avoid a larger war with Russia. He was only, he said, expressing moral “outrage.”

Journalist Michael Kinsley once wrote that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

That’s largely what Biden has done (and what he has often done throughout his career). The “truth” is that, like many, he’s appalled by Putin’s behavior and the tragic loss of life in Ukraine, and he deeply wishes Putin weren’t in power. But he isn’t “supposed” to say that because he holds the role and responsibilities of the president of the United States.

Among those responsibilities is that he shouldn’t do anything that carelessly raises the risk of war. Russia has not responded with further escalation against the US, so that risk might not have materialized. But in part that may be because Biden’s administration seems to have successfully made clear that his comments should not in any way be taken literally.

What did Biden say, and what was the context?

The comment came during a speech Biden gave in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday evening, at the tail end of a dayslong trip to Europe filled with diplomatic meetings, and hours after he’d met with Ukrainian refugees. You can watch the speech or read a transcript of it. After speaking from his prepared text for nearly half an hour, Biden concluded as follows — I’ve bolded the noteworthy line:

A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty. Brutality will never grind down their will to be free. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia — for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.

We will have a different future — a brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light, of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibilities.

For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.

God bless you all. And may God defend our freedom. And may God protect our troops. Thank you for your patience. Thank you.

Administration officials soon put out the word to reporters that those nine bolded words were not in Biden’s prepared text and that the president went off-script in saying them.

What’s controversial about that?

Given the horrendous loss of life and destruction caused by Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine, it certainly makes emotional sense for many across the world to yearn for his downfall (and indeed, some cheered Biden’s comments).

But that statement coming from the president of the United States carried some weighty implications — and risks.

The big one was that Putin would interpret this as an escalation and that tensions between the nuclear-armed US and nuclear-armed Russia would get even worse, hurting efforts to negotiate a settlement in Ukraine and raising the risks of war. Biden has said many times that he does not want war between the US and Russia, and he reiterated that Monday, but the question is whether Putin understands that.

Now, after the Donald Trump experience, it’s probably true that foreign leaders no longer assume whatever comes out of the president’s mouth is the carefully considered policy of the United States. Throughout this war, though, some have questioned whether Putin is acting in irrational ways or has cut himself off from good information. Historically, wars stemming from miscalculations and paranoia about the intentions of “the other side” are not uncommon. Hopefully, Putin is not so far gone as to take such a dark view of US intentions and act based on those. But why did Biden take the risk at all? What is gained from going off-script?

Additionally, if Biden had chosen to escalate against Putin for considered strategic reasons, well, that still may be unwise, but perhaps there would be a rationale behind it, and the costs and benefits of doing so would’ve been taken into account.

Accidentally escalating with an ad-lib, though, does not seem the best way to make US policy. (As, again, was often quite clear when Trump was in charge.)

What was the response?

The cleanup began just minutes after Biden’s speech when a White House official speaking on background gave this statement to reporters: “The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.” So there was an immediate walkback and clarification that Biden was not announcing policy.

Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called Biden’s comments “quite alarming” and a “personal insult,” adding, “It is not for the United States’ president to decide who is going to be and who is the president of the Russian Federation.” Overall, though, Paul Shinkman of US News characterized this as a “muted response,” and wrote that some of the US’s Western allies seemed more annoyed than Russia did. So, importantly, it seems that for now, the comments were not taken as an escalation as some feared (perhaps in part because the administration so quickly walked them back).

One critical Western ally was French President Emmanuel Macron, who responded to Biden’s remarks Sunday. “We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine without waging war and without escalation,” Macron said. “If we want to do this, we must not be in the escalation, of neither words nor actions.”

More extensive clean-up from Biden personally ensued when the president spoke to reporters at the budget event Monday. He said:

I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward the way Putin is dealing, and the actions of this man — just — just the brutality of it. Half the children in Ukraine. I had just come from being with those families...

... I want to make it clear: I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it.

The president went on to clarify that these were his “personal feelings,” not policy, adding:

He shouldn’t remain in power. Just like, you know, bad people shouldn’t continue to do bad things. But it doesn’t mean we have a fundamental policy to do anything to take Putin down in any way.

... Nobody believes I was talking about taking down Putin. ... What have I been talking about since this all began? The only war that’s worse than one intended is one that’s unintended. The last thing I want to do is engage in a land war or a nuclear war with Russia. That’s not part of it.

I was expressing my outrage at the behavior of this man. It’s outrageous. It’s outrageous. And it’s more an aspiration than anything. He shouldn’t be in power. People like this shouldn’t be ruling countries, but they do. The fact they do — it doesn’t mean I can’t express my outrage about it.

So Biden has clarified that he’s appalled by Putin’s behavior and that he has a personal “aspiration” that ”bad” people like Putin ideally “shouldn’t” be in charge of countries, but he acknowledges that’s the reality.

Overall, though, Russia has not responded with further escalation against the US, and the New York Times reported Tuesday that there are “signs of progress” in Russia-Ukraine talks. So it seems that the clean-up was successful. Perhaps it would have been better not to have needed any clean-up in the first place, but the worst fears of where this would lead have so far not been realized.

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