Joe Biden told reporters that he was expressing his “moral outrage” when he said that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” but it did not reflect a change in U.S. policy.
Biden made the surprising remark at the end of his speech on Saturday in Poland, and reporters quickly seized on the comment as a new development in the United States’ approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But the White House quickly issued a statement after the speech to clarify that Biden was not calling for regime change.
Answering questions from reporters, Biden denied that the White House “walked back” his remark, and insisted that it was an expression of “my personal feelings,” particularly after he met with refugees who have fled their native Ukraine amid the Russian attacks.
“I was talking to the Russian people telling them what we thought,” Biden said.
Biden also took issue with Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy’s question, denying that he made a series of gaffes on the same trip. “You interpret the language that way,” Biden said.
The president also said that he was not concerned that his remark complicates U.S. policy or that it could lead to an escalation of tensions with Putin.
“People should understand that he is going to do what he thinks he should do,” Biden said, adding that it was “not rational” to think that the remark would have such an impact on the Russian leader.
“It’s ridiculous. No one believes I was talking about taking down Putin. Nobody believes that,” he said. “…I was expressing my outrage at the behavior of this man. It’s more of an aspiration if anything. He shouldn’t be in power.”
In his Warsaw speech, Biden said, “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness, who 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.”Yet as many in the media quickly keyed in on Biden’s statement as a call for Putin’s ouster, which would be a significant change in U.S. policy, the White House quickly issued a statement clarifying what he meant.
“The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official said. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”