When President Biden Ad Libs About Putin

From Politico Playbook with Ryan Lizza:

There’s a lot going on in Washington this week: The White House will release its new budget today. CHUCK SCHUMER and MITT ROMNEY have been negotiating a potential Covid funding deal, and we’re told it could soon materialize. The Jan. 6 committee is set to begin contempt proceedings against DAN SCAVINO and PETER NAVARRO. And the fallout from the GINNI THOMAS texts will be a hot topic for reporters chasing elected officials on Capitol Hill.

But President JOE BIDEN’s Saturday regime change ad lib — “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”— is overshadowing all of it.

Even Biden’s Sunday Mass was dominated by Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN. Biden attended the 5:30 p.m. service at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The gospel reading of the day was the story of the prodigal son. During the homily the priest reflected on that reading and compared Biden and Putin, America and Russia, to the estranged brothers in that New Testament story.

“Putin/Russia may be the wayward son that we need to pray for and love,” one of Biden’s fellow parishioners emailed us after the service. (Next week perhaps it will be about CHRIS ROCK and WILL SMITH.)

As Biden stepped outside the church, he had the following exchange:

— Reporter: “Mr. President, do you want Putin removed? Mr. President, were you calling for regime change?”

— Biden: “No.”

Every Biden decision on Ukraine has been guided by keeping NATO and Russia from becoming combatants. There’s obviously an enormous amount of hostility toward Putin from U.S. policymakers. When we interviewed DEREK CHOLLET, a senior State Department official, last week he had a mug on his desk that said, “Fuck U Putin.” Biden has previously called Putin a “butcher” and a “war criminal.”

But the Biden doctrine, as Chollet told us, was all about “maintaining the escalation dynamic.”

“You don’t want to widen the war,” Chollet said. “That’s a fundamental kind of balance point that you’re trying — that we’re all trying to navigate.”

Biden lost his compass for a moment Saturday. 

The comment created a schism with America’s closest allies on the conflict when the entire point of Biden’s trip was to show unity. French President EMMANUEL MACRON, who is part of diplomatic talks to end the war, was especially perturbed.

“I wouldn’t use this type of wording because I continue to hold discussions with President Putin,” Macron said in a TV interview. “We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine without escalation — that’s the objective.” He also pointed to Biden’s “butcher” comment as problematic.

The AP sees the remark haunting Biden as he deals with domestic difficulties: It “created a troubling distraction, undermining his effectiveness as he returned home to face restive Americans who strongly disapprove of his performance on issues that matter most to them.”

The AP also notes that the call for regime change was Biden’s third errant remark about a major issue during his trip to Europe:

“During a news conference in Brussels on Thursday, he said the U.S. would respond ‘in kind’ if Putin used chemical weapons in Ukraine. The next day, national security advisor JAKE SULLIVAN said the president meant that ‘we’ll respond accordingly,’ not that the U.S. would use chemical weapons of its own.

“And then, while speaking to members of the 82nd Airborne Division recently deployed to Poland, Biden seemed to suggest they would be going to Ukraine. Speaking about the bravery of Ukrainians, Biden said: ‘Look at how they’re stepping up. And you’re going to see when you’re there.’

“Afterward, the White House reiterated that Biden had no intention of sending troops into Ukraine, something the president has insisted since the beginning of the conflict.”

WaPo’s Missy Ryan reports that the Biden remark “threatens to push deeply strained U.S.-Russia relations closer to collapse, former officials and analysts said, with potentially serious implications for Washington’s ability to help steer the war in Ukraine to an end and avoid a wider conflict.”

The WSJ reports that some analysts believe that Biden’s call for regime change “could strengthen Mr. Putin’s hand at home, causing Russians to rally around him and an invasion they may not otherwise support.”

The FT has a roundup of criticism of Biden, including this remark from a senior British official who cuts to the heart of why it was boneheaded: “It’s good in principle to incentivise good behaviour, not encourage worse behaviour by suggesting there is nothing left to lose.”

Biden’s ill-advised comment came at an especially bad time. The FT’s Max Seddon reports that negotiations are picking up:

“Ukraine is ready to declare neutrality, abandon its drive to join NATOand vow to not develop nuclear weapons if Russia withdraws troops and Kyiv receives security guarantees, President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY said on the eve of a round of peace talks in Turkey.

“Speaking in Russian, Zelensky told a group of Russian independent journalists on Sunday that Kyiv was prepared to meet Moscow on some of its demands on the condition that the changes were put to a referendum and third parties promised to protect Ukraine.”

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