Joe Biden has kept his aides busy by frequently misspeaking in ways that require walk-backs and clarifications — a pattern that came into focus amid reports this week that the president has grown frustrated with the cleanup routine.
Administration officials have deployed a wide variety of excuses for Biden’s many gaffes, including that he was simply being emotional, that he misremembered details, or that he did not mean the words he spoke.
As his approval ratings plummet, Biden has put himself in fewer situations where his misstatements tend to occur, holding press conferences less frequently and shunning sit-down interviews for months.
Biden raised eyebrows days after taking office when he said he aimed to vaccinate 150 million people within his first 100 days on the job — a lofty goal that surpassed the number he’d initially set.
The White House’s previous vaccination goal was to get 100 million vaccinated in the first 100 days.
Then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki walked back Biden’s projection the next day.
“The president didn’t actually say, ‘The new goal is.’ The president said, ‘I hope we can do even more than that,’” Psaki said. “And that is certainly, of course, his hope.”
Facing pressure to get schools reopened as patience with COVID-19 restrictions waned, Biden said in April 2021 that schools “should probably all be open” by the fall.
Biden cited data that showed in-person learning had not contributed significantly to the transmission of the coronavirus.
But his answer rankled some Democrats who continued to push, at that time, for remote learning.
Senior White House adviser Anita Dunn seemingly walked back Biden’s statement days later, saying during a CNN interview that “we can’t look in a crystal ball and say what September looks like” and arguing that Biden didn’t mean to suggest schools should “absolutely” open in the fall.
NO MORE COVID
Speaking at a CNN town hall event in July 2021, Biden said COVID-19 vaccines would prevent people from getting infected with the virus.
“The various shots that people are getting now, cover that,” Biden said, referring to the delta variant of the virus. “You’re OK. You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations.”
The White House quickly faced questions about Biden’s statement, given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health organizations were warning of evidence that infections could continue to spread among the vaccinated.
At the time, booster shots were not yet part of the White House’s strategy.
“What the science says is that 97% of hospitalizations are people who are unvaccinated. So, yes, there are cases of individuals who are vaccinated, to be absolutely clear, who … have gotten COVID,” Psaki said in response to a question about why the president made his false statement about vaccines. “It is a very small percentage and a small number of people.”
“That was the point he was trying to make last night,” Psaki added.
NO MORE AL QAEDA
Biden’s foreign policy team was forced to correct an inaccurate statement Biden made during the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last summer.
“What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?” Biden said at a press conference in August 2021. “We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan as well as, as well as getting Osama bin Laden, and we did.”
Al Qaeda had not, however, been eradicated from Afghanistan.
“We know that al Qaeda is a presence, as well as ISIS, in Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby later conceded.
Biden has had his comments about Taiwan walked back by White House officials on multiple occasions.
In August, he suggested during an unaired portion of an interview with ABC that the United States had a commitment to defend Taiwan militarily that is as binding as Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which compels the U.S. to defend other NATO members under attack.
“We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if, in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan,” Biden said, according to a transcript of the interview.
The comment attracted attention despite not being in the broadcast portion of the interview and prompted a round of questions about whether the administration’s policy toward Taiwan had changed.
But an unnamed White House official later told Reuters that the administration’s position had not changed despite the implication from Biden.
KABUL’S AIRPORT IS FINE
Defending his administration amid consternation over images of a chaotic scene at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Biden suggested no one was struggling to navigate the situation.
“We have no indication that they haven’t been able to get, in Kabul, through the airport,” Biden said at a press conference in August. “We know of no circumstance where American citizens, carrying an American passport, are trying to get through to the airport.”
Biden’s statement sparked outrage given the deluge of footage that showed virtually everyone facing obstacles at the crowded and disorganized airport in Kabul. His claim also fueled the perception that he was out of touch with the situation he had created.
Both Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, and Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged shortly afterward that the administration had indeed received what they both described as limited reports of people encountering difficulties at the airport.
TREE OF LIFE VISIT
During a meeting with Jewish leaders in September, Biden attempted to create a moment of empathy by recalling a visit he made to the Tree of Life Synagogue after a 2018 massacre there left 11 people dead.
The only problem: Tree of Life said Biden had never actually visited.
An unnamed White House official later cleared up the confusion by saying Biden had been referring to a phone call he had with the synagogue’s rabbi in 2019.
‘MINOR INCURSION’ INTO UKRAINE
Biden created a minor firestorm when he suggested in January that the U.S. might do nothing if Russia invaded Ukraine on a smaller scale.
“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do,” Biden said of Russia’s then-unknown plans for invading Ukraine.
Psaki later released a statement toughening up Biden’s stance on how the U.S. would respond to a Russian invasion.
“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 in a statement.
Amid fury over election reforms in Republican states, Biden in January cast doubt on whether the midterm elections could proceed fairly without Democratic legislation.
“It all depends,” Biden said when asked whether the 2022 elections could be legitimate given GOP reforms.
Critics accused Biden of engaging in the same kind of partisan election denial that he had accused Republicans of spreading.
Psaki cleaned up Biden’s remarks the next day, tweeting: “Lets [sic] be clear, [Biden] was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election.”
PUTIN MUST GO
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Biden’s words during an appearance in Warsaw, Poland, in March touched off a round of speculation that the Biden administration was moving toward the goal of regime change in Moscow.
An unnamed White House official quickly told news outlets Biden hadn’t actually meant to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin could not stay in power.
“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” the official said. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.”
PUTIN’S WAR CRIMES
Biden lambasted Putin in March for his military actions in Ukraine, which members of his administration had criticized harshly but stopped short of labeling as war crimes.
“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden told reporters off-the-cuff on March 16.
Observers questioned whether this was a significant shift in the administration’s stance toward Putin, given that officials had avoided calling the Russian president a war criminal in previous settings.
Psaki later said Biden was “speaking from the heart” and not signaling any formal designation.
TAIWAN: TAKE TWO
Biden more recently made a pledge that the U.S. would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.
Asked directly while in South Korea earlier this month, Biden incorrectly said the U.S. had made a commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense.
“You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” a reporter asked Biden on May 23.
“Yes,” Biden responded.
“You are?” the reporter clarified.
“That’s the commitment we made,” Biden said.
The setting of the exchange, as well as the directness of his response, prompted a fresh round of questions as to whether the administration was adjusting its position on Taiwan.
The White House sprung into cleanup mode once again, with an unnamed official telling reporters there was no change to the U.S. position on Taiwan and that the president likely meant the U.S. would supply weapons, not troops, if China invaded Taiwan.
Amid a heated national debate over guns, Biden waded into controversial waters when he suggested the government should ban 9mm handguns.
He referenced that caliber of firearm while recounting for reporters what he was once told by a trauma doctor.
“They said a .22-caliber bullet will lodge in the lung, and we can probably get it out — may be able to get it and save the life. A 9mm bullet blows the lung out of the body,” he said this week.
“So, the idea of these high-caliber weapons is — there’s simply no rational basis for it in terms of self-protection, hunting,” Biden added.
He was referring to the most popular caliber of handgun, and his comments raised questions about whether he was proposing a ban on handguns similar to the one floated recently in Canada.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre later told reporters Biden “does not support a ban on the sale of all handguns.”
Reporting from The Washington Examiner.