UPDATED, with additional details: Just after 5 AM ET on Monday, networks started to break in to regular programming for special reports that President Joe Biden had made a surprise trip to Ukraine.
By then, the president was already in Kyiv, having traveled there after a 10-hour trip by train from Poland. At 5:01 AM, a pool report was finally released that officially revealed the visit, after the information had been embargoed for hours.
“I’m here to show our unwavering support for the nation’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Biden said as he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at Marinsky Palace. NBC News was up at 5:03 AM ET with anchor Peter Alexander, and other networks doing their own reports throughout the morning.
The visit may have been a surprise, but it was not unexpected: Coming up on the first anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine, Biden had scheduled a trip to Poland this week. That immediately led to speculation that the president would cross the border into Ukraine, making a rare visit to a war zone. This trip, however, was different, in that the U.S. does not have a military presence in Ukraine, which is under the ongoing threat of Russian missile strikes.
“There is no meeting with President Zelensky scheduled …. for the trip right now,” spokesman John Kirby said on Friday when asked by reporters, emphasizing the words “right now.” But there was suspicion that a trip was in the planning given the gaps on Biden’s schedule. The president gave the final go ahead for the trip on Friday, according to White House officials.
Biden left on Air Force One at 4:15 AM ET on Sunday, with no events on his public schedule for the day and official plans to leave for Poland on Monday. Just two journalists were with him on the journey — The Wall Street Journal’s Sabrina Siddiqui and the AP’s Evan Vucci — and they were instructed to hand over their devices. The president’s entourage was also small, including Jake Sullivan, Jen O’Malley Dillon and Annie Tomasini.
Networks already had been making plans for anniversary coverage with week, adding to reporting staffs already in Kyiv to cover the war. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, for instance, was in Warsaw to co-anchor CNN This Morning from there.
Biden announced another $500 million in aid during the trip, but the purpose of the trip undoubtedly was to send a message to Russia about the U.S. commitment to Ukraine. “The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you,” Biden said.
Biden and Zelensky at one point walked the streets of Kyiv, with the meeting between the two leaders meant to symbolize the unexpected resilience of Ukraine after 12 months along with the unity of support by the U.S. and its allies.
At one moment during the trip, air raid sirens were sounded as they left St. Michael’s Cathedral. The visit also included a wreath laying at the Wall of Remembrance, a memorial to Ukrainian soldiers killed, and Biden’s visit to the U.S. Embassy.
“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said.
Appearing with Biden after their meeting, Zelensky called the negotiations with the U.S. over additional support “very fruitful.” “They were very important and crucial,” he said. Under discussion, he said, were long range missiles that have not been provided to Ukraine before.
Biden recalled how he and Zelensky spoke by phone a year ago as the Russian invasion was just starting. “You told me that you could hear explosions in the background,” Biden said. “I’ll never forget that.” He said that, when he asked Zelensky how the U.S. could help, the Ukrainian president said, “Gather the leaders of the world. Ask them to support Ukraine.”
“One year later, Kyiv stands, and Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” Biden said.
The president arrived in Kyiv about 1 AM ET and left about five hours later.
Reporters involved in covering the visit were sworn to secrecy. According to Siddiqui, she and Vucci were summoned to a private meeting on Friday with White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, with Tamara Keith, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, also in attendance. It was then that they were informed of the plans by Biden to travel to Kyiv. Siddiqui and Vucci were told to be on the lookout for an email with instructions for an early morning departure from Joint Base Andrews, with the subject line, “Arrival instructions for the golf tourney.” They got the email mid-afternoon on Saturday, telling them to report to Andrews between 2 AM ET and 2:15 AM ET the next morning.
Once at the base, the journalists were driven to an Air Force C-32 that is often used to fly into smaller airports during domestic travel, according to Siddiqui. The plane departed as Air Force One at 4:15 AM.
The plane refueled at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany after a seven-hour flight, then went on to Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport in Poland. Biden then went by motorcade to the Przemysi Glowmy train station for the trip to Kyiv.
Ten hours later, at about 8 AM Kyiv time, the train arrived, with U.S. Ambassador Bridget Brink waiting. “It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” Biden said after stepping off the train.
Keith wrote in a note to WHCA members that the two-person pool traveling with the president was joined in Kyiv by a two-person crew from CBS that traveled in Biden’s motorcade. Another nine journalists were added at the presidential palace. She said that she advocated for a full pool while the president was traveling, but the White House insisted on just two journalists because of the security concerns.
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