President Biden’s remark that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” reverberated throughout Washington on Sunday, with some current and former officials and lawmakers scrutinizing the reported ad-lib while others slammed the White House for its subsequent walk-back.
Biden turned heads on Saturday when, at the end of a speech in Warsaw, Poland, he said, “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
The White House quickly tried to walk back the comment, claiming that Biden was referring to Putin exercising power outside of Russia, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that the U.S. has no plans for regime change in Moscow.
The forcefully delivered comment, however, still attracted a fair amount of criticism, with one Republican lawmaker on Sunday imploring the president to stay on script.
“He gave a good speech at the end, but as you pointed out already, there was a horrendous gaffe right at the end of it,” Sen. James Risch (Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“I wish he would stay on script. Whoever wrote that speech did a good job for him. But my gosh, I wish they would keep him on script,” Risch added.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sounded a similar note, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Biden’s speech was “very strong, despite the ad-lib at the end, and the gaffe at the end.”
The Biden administration continued its clean-up of the matter on Sunday, with U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith telling CNN’s “State of the Union” that “the U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia, full stop.”
Pressed on whether Biden’s comment was a mistake, Smith said the remark was “a principled human reaction” from the president who earlier that day heard stories from Ukrainian refugees in Poland who fled their war-torn country.
For some, the walk-back was worse than Biden’s declaration.
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) told Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that the apparent “flip-flipping” from Biden “damages his credibility.”
“And the commander in chief has to be taken seriously. I don’t think he’s taken seriously right now,” Waltz said, adding that dinged credibility on top of other gaffes from the president is “damaging to our ability to deter Putin.”
Waltz said he agrees with Biden that “this murderous attack will continue as long as Putin is in charge,” but took issue with the president making it look like the U.S. or the West want to cause the change.
He said such a stance “feeds into Putin’s propaganda machine” and “could actually backfire to make Putin stronger internally,” emphasizing that the change must come from the Russian people.
Former Obama-era Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson also took a shot at the White House’s apparent clean-up, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he may not have walked back the statement.
“He’s a war criminal. He’s slaughtering innocent men, women and children. He illegally invaded Ukraine. And he has got command and control of nuclear weapons. Such a person should not remain in power,” Johnson said, adding that Putin has “more than lost his legitimacy.”
The former homeland security chief said he would have modified the remark by saying “it’s not a statement of our policy, it just simply a statement of fact.”
Biden’s unscripted remark is also turning heads in Russia. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Reuters “that’s not for Biden to decide” whether Putin should remain in power, adding “The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”
“This speech – and the passages which concern Russia – is astounding, to use polite words,” he added. “He doesn’t understand that the world is not limited to the United States and most of Europe.”
The ad-libbed remark came at the end of a 27-minute speech in Warsaw that capped off Biden’s trip to Europe, which focused on Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The military offensive entered its second month this week with no signs of slowing, though Moscow’s efforts have stalled in some areas because of staunch Ukrainian opposition.
Smith on Sunday said the past week had been “historic” and called Biden’s speech “completely pitch-perfect.” She added that the meetings “set us on a good course for continuing to support the allies, support Ukrainians, and apply pressure on Russia to get them to stop this war.”