Republicans are pointing to President Biden’s ad-libbed remark that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” as the most serious example of reasons to doubt his competency.
“It’s extremely concerning that our commander in chief can’t clearly communicate the policy of the United States abroad,” said Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), adding that Biden “left our allies a bigger mess” after a trip that was “supposed to reassure support for our NATO allies.”
Biden’s remark came as U.S.-Russia relations reach a breaking point over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its second month. The administration has been delicately navigating the conflict without risking escalation by the nuclear power, but some Republicans said Biden’s off-the-cuff remark may have done just that.
The White House on Saturday immediately attempted to clean up Biden’s comment about Putin not remaining in power, saying that the president meant to convey that Putin “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.”
But that sparked even more confusion, leading Biden himself to answer questions Sunday and Monday about what exactly he meant after reporting emerged that indicated he had ad-libbed the end of his pivotal speech.
“President Biden’s careless remark is fuel for Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine and breaks unity with our NATO allies. It only ratchets up tensions,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.).
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he wished the president would “stay on script.”
Republicans argued that the remark was the latest example of Biden creating confusion about the administration’s stance on foreign policy in light of the Russian invasion.
Biden on Monday insisted that his remark was not a change in U.S. policy regarding regime change in Russia but rather that he was expressing a “moral outrage” after visiting refugees in Poland over the weekend. He insisted that he wasn’t walking it back.
“I was expressing moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it,” Biden told reporters.
Still, Republicans were left fuming at what some saw as another example of why Biden’s competency as president should be questioned.
“If Biden can’t give a speech on a matter this important without making such big mistakes, he should not be giving speeches on it,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a tweet.
Biden’s comment and the White House’s backpedaling also frustrated Republicans who have been pushing the Biden administration to be more active in providing assistance to Ukraine.
House Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said on “State of the Union” Sunday that the remark was “more provocative” than the plan for Poland to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine via a U.S. airbase in Germany, a plan that the U.S. rejected earlier this month out of concern it could potentially draw the U.S. and NATO directly into the fight.
McCaul also said that he had expected Biden’s trip to end with an announcement on an agreement to provide Ukraine even further support than the hundreds of millions of dollars in weaponry and humanitarian aid the U.S. has already sent to help. McCaul mentioned Slovakia’s offer to provide anti-aircraft S-300 missile systems as long as NATO replenishes their systems.
“We need to give David the slingshot,” McCaul said, referencing the biblical story of David and Goliath.
Other Republicans, who were eager to see Biden take a stronger stance against Putin, took issue with the White House weakening the comment. Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) lamented that Biden “won’t even bark, let alone bite” while also praising the president because he “finally said something right.”
“I’ve been saying this from the beginning: the West needs to be clear that the only way this ends is with Putin out of power. If you ask me, the only ‘gaffe’ is Joe Biden trying to walk back his comments. He finally said something right and showed an ounce of fortitude, and then he immediately backpedaled,” Mast said in a statement. “This tells our adversaries that Biden won’t even bark, let alone bite.'”
A worst-case scenario, some Republicans fear, is that Biden’s verbal slips and his administration’s cleanup could be a prelude to a failing foreign policy.
“While the Biden administration talks a lot, it actually says very little,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “If its foreign policy is to be guided by verbal gymnastics – rather than sober strategy – a hard fall is never far off.”