On Friday James Freeman wrote:
Some issues are just too important to be left to an unscripted Joe Biden. This is not CNN and your humble correspondent is not a doctor so this column will not be offering a long-distance diagnosis of the president’s mental health or an assessment of how his cognition compares to that of other world leaders. But these are dangerous times and we would all be much safer if Mr. Biden would make greater use of prepared statements on subjects such as, for example, weapons of mass destruction.
Two months after a bumbling press conference in which Mr. Biden implied that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine might be tolerable to the U.S. and its allies, the President flew to Europe this week and somehow ended up taking questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Yes, it’s important for all of us to be able to hear from our elected officials and to assess the content of their remarks as well as the skill and conviction with which they advocate for their policies. But this particular elected official does not appear to be up to the task. While we consider the implications, Mr. Biden should try to say as little as possible in public during an international crisis.
This presents a unique challenge since he happens to be the sitting president of the United States. But there is no constitutional requirement for the president to make off-the-cuff remarks, or to deliver speeches of any kind. If necessary he can email messages to Congress rather than speaking to legislators.
Before this week’s trip to Europe and the latest presidential adventure in media relations, Mr. Biden’s policy response to the Russian invasion had been fairly clear: aid the Ukrainians, sanction the Russians, and seek to avoid scenarios in which NATO forces could be drawn into the conflict. Then came the Thursday press conference. Here’s an excerpt from the White House transcript:
Q Hi. Thank you, Mr. President. So you’ve warned about the real threat of chemical weapons being used. Have you gathered specific intelligence that suggests that President Putin is deploying these weapons, moving them to position, or considering their use?
And would the U.S. or NATO respond with military action if he did use chemical weapons?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, on the first question, I can’t answer that. I’m not going to give you intelligence data, number one.
Number two, we would respond. We would respond if he uses it. The nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use.So whether America enters a war is ultimately up to Vladimir Putin and which weapons he chooses to use and in which circumstances? The subject came up again a few minutes later:
Q … And to clarify, on chemical weapons: Could — if chemical weapons were used in Ukraine, would that trigger a military response from NATO?
THE PRESIDENT: It would re- — it would trigger a response in kind, whether or not — you’re asking whether NATO would cross; we’d make that decision at the time.
A response in kind? A common definition of the phrase could lead one to think Mr. Biden was contemplating a scenario in which he too went beyond the pale. Appearing this weekend on the Fox Business Network’s “WSJ at Large” program, columnist Tammy Bruce helpfully notes: “Using chemical weapons is against international law. It is certainly a moral abomination.” She adds that the president has been a politician for half a century. This is not a mistake resulting from lack of experience in foreign affairs. It’s something worse.
Thank goodness the White House was ready with a communications cleanup effort. Aboard Air Force One on Friday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan responded to a press inquiry:
Q Jake, President Biden, at the press conference yesterday, said that if Russia uses chemical weapons in Ukraine, the United States and NATO will respond in kind, which would seem to imply using chemical weapons back. Is that what he meant by “in kind”? Or what was he trying to say there?
[MR. SULLIVAN]: No. No. And you heard him in another answer say we’ll respond accordingly — meaning, you know, we will select the form and nature of our response based on the nature of the action Russia takes, and we’ll do so in coordination with our Allies. And we’ve communicated to the Russians, as the President said publicly a couple of weeks ago, that there will be a severe price if Russia uses chemical weapons.
And I won’t go beyond that other than to say the United States has no intention of using chemical weapons, period, under any circumstances.A good number of us will cling to the belief that the president was confused and didn’t understand what he was saying, which is all the more reason for him to avoid deviating from a prepared text in this perilous time.
Of course presidential silence is not a long-term strategy but right now the world doesn’t need more Biden misstatements on issues as consequential as weapons of mass destruction.
That was before Biden either reinserted his foot in his mouth or, to use the definition of “gaffe” by Washington journalist Michael Kinsley, revealed something Biden didn’t intend to admit. Freeman again:
On Friday this column advised President Joe Biden to avoid public speaking. Then over the weekend Mr. Biden made another ill-considered remark with potentially grave consequences. After he and his staff walked back the remarks, now he seems to be affirming the walk-back while also defending the original comment.
If the president still doesn’t wish to accept this column’s advice, perhaps he’d like to ask someone to sit in the front row at his public events to discourage him from making inappropriate remarks. Who might be best for this role?
Did Donald Trump ever say something that could have escalated a war?