White House Scrambles To Clean Up, Clarify Biden’s Comments On Ukraine And 2022 Election

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Shelby Talcott Senior White House Correspondent
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The White House spent a portion of Wednesday evening and Thursday cleaning up two key comments from President Joe Biden’s press conference.

Biden’s marathon formal press conference lasted for nearly two hours, beating out both former President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama’s lengthiest press conferences. While Biden started off by calling on reporters using a list in hand, he eventually abandoned the paper, joking at one point that he could “still stand” despite the length of the event.

With the lengthy press conference – a rare event for the current president – came some missteps. Early on, Biden was asked about the passage of his election bills and whether he believes the upcoming midterm election would be fair without them.

Biden is pushing for passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would give more federal control over state election laws. Republicans have blocked these efforts, often arguing it subverts the Constitution.

“It all depends on whether or not we’re able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try and alter the outcome of the election,” Biden responded on Wednesday. “And it’s one thing – look, maybe I’m just being too much of an optimist. Remember how we thought not that many people were going to show up to vote in the middle of a pandemic? We had the highest voter turnout in the history of the United States of America.”

Biden continued on to say that “no matter how hard they [Republicans] make it for minorities to vote,” people will still “stand in line and defy the attempt to keep them from” voting. When asked for clarification later on in the press conference, Biden maintained that the 2022 midterm elections “could easily be illegitimate.”

“Oh yeah, I think it could easily be illegitimate. Imagine, imagine if in fact, Trump is succeeded in convincing … to not count the votes,” Biden said. “Imagine if those attempts to say that the count was not legit, you have to recount it and were … going to discard the following votes. Im not saying it’s gonna be legit. The increase in the prospect of being illegitimate is a direct proportion to us not been able to get these reforms passed.”

Biden’s election comments and the subsequent media coverage sparked pushback from White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday morning. First, Psaki tweeted that Biden “was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election” and was, in fact, “making the opposite point.”

“In 2020, a record number of voters turned out in the face of a pandemic, and election officials made sure they could vote and have those votes counted,” Psaki tweeted. “He was explaining that the results would be illegitimate if states do what the former president asked them to do after the 2020 election: toss out ballots and overturn results after the fact. The Big Lie is putting our democracy at risk. We’re fighting to protect it.”

Shortly afterwards, Psaki went on Fox News, where she addressed the president’s comments for a second time. Psaki said she “talked to the president a lot about this and he is absolutely not predicting that the 2022 elections would be illegitimate.”


“The point he was raising was both that in 2020 even amongst challenging circumstances – efforts to suppress the vote, the midst of a pandemic – there was record turnout,” Psaki said. “Democrats and Republicans, record turnout to go to the polls. The point he was making is that the former president asked a number of states, seven or more, in fact, to overturn the outcome of the election.”

The press secretary continued addressing Biden’s “illegitimate” election comments during Thursday afternoon’s press briefing. She reiterated that Biden “was not intending to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election” and continued on to argue that “he was actually attempting to make the opposite point.”

When pressed on the subject – specifically whether Biden believes the election will be legitimate even if his bills fail passage – Psaki said “yes.”

The administration also scrambled to walk back a comment from Biden where he responded to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

At the press conference, Biden promised to hold Russia “accountable if it invades” Ukraine – adding a caveat that “it depends on what [Russia] does.”

“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do, et cetera, but if they do what they are capable of doing with the forces massed on the border, it will be a disaster for Russia if they invade Ukraine,” Biden said.

National Security Counsel spokeswoman Emily Horne quickly issued a statement on Twitter, writing that the president “clarified this” and “was referring to the difference between military and non-military/para-military/cyber action by the Russians.”

“He was referring to the difference between military and non-military/para-military/cyber action by the Russians. Such actions would be met by a reciprocal response, in coordination with Allies and partners,” Horne wrote.

A short while later, Psaki sent out a statement clarifying Biden’s remarks as well.

“President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies,” Psaki said. “President Biden also knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyber-attacks and paramilitary tactics.”

On Thursday morning, Biden himself weighed in on his recent remarks. At the top of a meeting with members of the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force, Biden promised that he’s “been absolutely clear with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin … [that] any, any assembled Russian united move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”

Biden said the invasion would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response.” He also said the administration and allies must “be ready to respond to” measures that are not “overt military actions,” using the example of paramilitary tactics.

“Let there be no doubt at all: If Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price,” Biden said. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: ‘Speak Loudly And Carry A Small Stick’: Republicans Blast Biden’s Response To Putin’s Escalation In Ukraine)

Once again, the administration’s efforts did not stop there. Psaki was pressed about Biden’s comments at the press briefing on Thursday – hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reminded Biden on Twitter that “there are no minor incursions and small nations.”

While she again promised that Putin moving troops across the border equals “an invasion,” the press secretary declined to “outline” specific “tools” the administration has in the event of paramilitary action and cyber attacks.

Despite the administration’s efforts following some of Biden’s more notable remarks, Psaki appeared to downplay any talk of a clean up, telling reporters that what the administration “conveyed” afterwards was “exactly what he’s [Biden] conveyed to President Putin.”

“I was already planning to go on Fox News,” Psaki said, referring to her Thursday morning appearance on the network.

“It doesn’t take long to send out a tweet, promise,” she added, referencing her tweets on Biden’s remarks.