“My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever,” President Ronald Reagan famously said. “The bombing begins in five minutes.” He said it in 1984 during a sound test on a hot mic. Of course, he was joking, but the sentiment behind the words was real. On Saturday, President Joe Biden read his speechfrom a painstakingly crafted script at a carefully-produced event where the symbolism of the location, the audience members, and the fraught times made every word consequential.
The word “power” appeared in the text 10 times. Drifting from his prepared text, Biden added an eleventh reference, regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” It was the last line of his speech before the obligatory “God bless you all” closing. Within minutes, the White House reacted, walking back the plain meaning of what Biden said.
“The President’s point was Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” said someone at the White House who declined to be named. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.” The President of the United States said, as the closing line of a major foreign policy speech, that Putin cannot remain in power, and within moments it was overruled by a nameless mandarin in Washington, D.C.
Biden, unlike Reagan, was not joking in either literal or sentimental terms. Being charitable, the president got carried away in the emotion of the moment, memories of his military son Beau, who was taken too soon, flooding his mind alongside top secret briefings of what could happen should this war widen. His anger rising, his indignation visible, it is possible Biden spoke words of command like the ones Olórin (Gandalf) spoke to the Balrog: “You cannot pass, flame of Udûn!” Or maybe he spoke a frustrated wish for a more pastoral age into the winds of time. Or perhaps it was a prayer, “for God’s sake,” calling on the King of Kings, the Ruler of Heaven and Earth, to right this enormous wrong.
It could have been any of these, but I am not prepared to believe that Biden was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, i.e. regime change.
In my mind, I see a presidential QRF—Quick Reaction Force—at the White House. Here’s a group of staffers assigned to listen to every word Biden speaks, publicly, or potentially publicly, ready to respond immediately to any perceived gaffe, misstatement, non-sequitur, or uncontrolled burst of anger. I see a coterie of handlers who, on friendly soil, can end press conferences at a moment’s notice, and prepare lists of “acceptable” reporters for Biden to call on. These measures all serve to protect the president, and the office he holds, from any messy situations.
The bigger the stakes, the more scrutiny and manpower would be assigned to the QRF. On Saturday, the lights all flashed bright red. Biden could not be caught talking out of turn about the removal of Putin from power. Not after the White House speared Sen. Lindsey Graham for saying it.
“That is not the position of the United States government and certainly not a statement you’d hear come from the mouth of anybody working in this administration,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Graham tweeted: “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military? The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out. You would be doing your country – and the world – a great service.”
He followed it up with this caveat:
The only salient difference between what Graham tweeted and what Biden spoke is that Biden neither specified who would do the deed of removing Putin from power or how it would be done, and that Biden has the codes for several thousand nuclear warheads. Graham was very plain saying that the U.S., or the West, cannot stop Putin from doing his will. If Graham’s remarks were (in my mind, rightly) considered provocative and irresponsible coming from a U.S. Senator, how much more so should we consider Biden’s remarks, made just a five-hour drive from Lviv, Ukraine, where Russian missiles hit that very day (and continue to hit into Monday).
The President of the United States said something provocative about the autocratic ruler of Russia, in the midst of a shooting war between Russia and a foreign nation to which we’ve pledged all but just short of actual military support. Within minutes, the White House, anonymously, contradicted the president’s statement. The wagons circled to protect the president. Truthfully, it was right for Biden to be called foolish.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken echoed the White House view, softening Biden’s remark.
“I think the president, the White House made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else,” Blinken said at a press conference in Jerusalem.
Who made the point? The president made a point that Putin should not be in power. The White House made a quite different point. Exactly who is running things?
I am going to go back to the age question, because I think it’s an important question. While I’m not a fellow traveler with those who claim Biden is a total dementia patient, I believe at his age, barely eight months from 80 years old and just over three years left in his term, there are other important signs short of that high bar which bear scrutiny.
In my personal dealings and hearing from many others, people who have done a certain job for decades, reaching beyond the classic retirement age, faced with difficult and thorny decisions, tend to yield to a strong, younger, group under their authority. Yeah, I’m not talking about the president immediately preceding this one, as he’s one of those people who feeds on chaos and personal aggrandizement without regard to sentiment or rest. So don’t hit me with Trump would have done this or that, or what Putin might have done differently with Trump in office. That’s all parallel universe fantasy garbage.
Biden himself said just days ago that he didn’t want to run again for president, that he was done, and the impetus for deciding to run was to get rid of Trump. In office, Biden was immediately beset with issues worse than he’s see in several decades as a senator. The last time that wartime Russia and runaway inflation were on the table, then-Senator Biden was 36 years old, barely old enough to qualify to run for president. Add to that a pandemic, a disgraceful exit from a 19-year war in Afghanistan, and a gas crisis. Biden is ready to let his chief of staff Ron Klain handle the daily work, to organize and categorize and recommend.
When Klain comes to Biden with a portfolio, I imagine Biden reads it, asks a few questions, and says “you know my positions on all these things, Ron.” Klain nods. “But if you think this is what’s best, we’ll do it.” So Klain sets up speeches, controlled appearances, and events for the president, and has a White House QRF ensuring that “what’s best” is really what Biden is given to say, and if he doesn’t say it, the response is immediate.
Except in this case, Biden said it, meant it, and all the QRF backtracking in the world won’t take it back. A president in charge would own it. When Ronald Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” it was no spur-of-the-moment departure from a prepared script. It was the prepared script. Secretary of State George Shultz objected to that line—he said it would be “an affront to Mr. Gorbachev.” Reagan consulted Kenneth Duberstein, his deputy chief of staff.
Reagan asked Duberstein’s advice. Duberstein replied that he thought the line about tearing down the wall sounded good. “But I told him, ‘You’re President, so you get to decide.’ And then,” Duberstein recalls, “he got that wonderful, knowing smile on his face, and he said, ‘Let’s leave it in.'”
Nobody wrote Biden’s line “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” But I believe, if Ronald Reagan were looking down from heaven, he’d have smiled grimly, “let’s leave it in.” Now that Biden said it, and the White House denied the meaning of the president’s own words, we have to ask who’s really in charge.
If it’s Biden, then let him say plainly what he means—though we all know what he meant. If it’s not, then we have a much bigger problem on our hands.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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