The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden predicts Russia will invade Ukraine, says Putin will regret it

In a news conference on Jan. 19, President Biden responded to questions about a possible Russian incursion into Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)
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On the eve of his first anniversary in office, President Biden on Wednesday held his first formal news conference in months, seeking to highlight his administration’s progress amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a stalled legislative agenda in Congress and a showdown with Russia over Ukraine.

“Tomorrow will mark one year since I took office. It’s been a year of challenges. But it’s also been a year of enormous progress,” Biden said as he opened the nearly two-hour news conference. He noted that 2 million people in the United States were vaccinated when he was sworn in last year, compared with 210 million today.

Biden also said that he expects Russian President Vladimir Putin to take some sort of action to “move in” and invade Ukraine and that the U.S. response “depends on what he does.” The White House later issued a statement seeking to clarify the comments, insisting that if Russian military moves across the border, it will be met with “a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies.”

Shortly after the news conference in the White House’s East Room, Biden is all but certain to face a defeat in the Senate on advancing voting rights legislation.

Here’s what to know:

  • A year into his presidency, Biden’s news conference was just his second on U.S. soil and his sixth overall, according to historians who track interactions between presidents and the press.
  • As the future of his Build Back Better plan remains in doubt, Biden said at the news conference, “It’s clear to me that we’re going to have to probably break it up.”
  • In a nearly 160-page filing, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) cited multiple examples of former president Donald Trump signing allegedly misleading financial statements that estimated the worth of properties in the Trump Organization portfolio and the value of his own fortune.
  • The House committee investigating the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, issued subpoenas Tuesday to members of Trump’s outside legal team who pursued and disseminated unfounded claims of mass election fraud.
6:02 p.m.
Headshot of Seung Min Kim
White House reporter
An array of topics was covered during Biden’s marathon news conference. But one issue that went untouched by reporters? Immigration, which dominated his first formal news conference last March. And it’s not as if there is a shortage of things to ask: For instance, does the president still believe that migrant families separated at the border under his predecessor deserve financial compensation? Now Justice Department lawyers are arguing in court that those cases should be dismissed, as my colleagues Sean Sullivan and Maria Sacchetti pointed out last week.
6:00 p.m.
Headshot of Dan Diamond
National reporter investigating health politics and policy
Asked about what covid-19 restrictions he expected a year from now, and whether Americans should expect a “new normal” for socializing and travel, Biden sidestepped the questions and instead reiterated his pandemic policy priorities.“I hope the new normal will be that we don’t … still have 30 some million people not vaccinated,” the president said, referencing his frustration over holdout Americans who say they won’t get the vaccines.Biden also touted a new Pfizer pill that appears to inhibit the worst effects of coronavirus and called on other countries to donate more shots to low-income nations, saying it was essential to curb the risk of new variants emerging. But he didn’t detail what Americans should expect for their own lives in the months to come.It’s not surprising that Biden doesn’t want to make commitments about what daily life will look like, as the nation continues to wrestle with soaring cases and hospitalizations from the omicron variant. To paraphrase public health experts like Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage, politicians who make promises in a pandemic often come to regret them.The White House has already faced questions about why they celebrated their progress in an event last Independence Day, with Biden vowing that covid-19 “no longer controls our lives,” before cases roared back in subsequent months.
5:53 p.m.
Headshot of Tyler Pager
White House reporter
I’m struck by Biden’s focus on Republican obstructionism during his first year as president. He has lamented Republicans’ unwillingness to work with him, arguing the GOP has been more antagonistic during his presidency than they were in former president Barack Obama’s tenure. Yet 19 Senate Republicans joined Democrats in passing Biden’s infrastructure legislation, and Biden and Democrats have been eager to tout the legislation as a bipartisan achievement.
5:52 p.m.
Headshot of Ashley Parker
White House Bureau Chief
Biden has been speaking for almost two hours, covering a range of topics. But if there’s one clear throughline, it’s that Biden and his team have settled on a message of Republicans not standing for anything or having any clear plans. Throughout the news conference, he returned time and time again to a version of something he asked rhetorically early on: “What are Republicans for? Name me one thing they’re for?”
5:39 p.m.
Headshot of Dan Diamond
National reporter investigating health politics and policy
U.S. covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are setting records this month, but Biden said the federal government’s pandemic plan is succeeding, part of his wide-ranging answer to a question about the competence of government.“I think we’ve done remarkably well,” the president said, as he extolled efforts to ramp up coronavirus tests, vaccines and other supplies, while occasionally nodding to setbacks. “Nobody has ever organized a strategic operation to get as many shots in arms.”This was a key part of Biden’s pitch as a candidate — that he would unleash the tremendous power of the federal government to combat a once-in-a-century pandemic, after President Donald Trump first played down the threat in 2020 and later shifted the burden to the states.The results of Biden’s plan have been mixed. For instance, he promised to set up a national government board that would help churn out coronavirus tests, saying it would resemble a World War II-era war production effort. That didn’t happen in 2021. But the vaccine effort has been widely credited as a success, and the White House’s new plans to ship masks and tests across the country have been hailed by public health experts, too.
5:06 p.m.
Headshot of Matt Viser
White House reporter
There has been a push and pull from Biden over unifying the country, or adopting a more partisan tone. The clearest signal of an emerging approach — forecast by White House advisers and his own remarks of late — is him gearing up for the midterms: “I tell my Republican friends, here I come. This is going to be about what are you for, what are you for?” In the past he prided himself on being a much-desired surrogate. The question this year, amid his low approval ratings, is whether Democratic candidates welcome him or distance themselves from him.
5:00 p.m.
Headshot of Dan Diamond
National reporter investigating health politics and policy
In recent weeks, the White House has really wanted Americans to know that the president is working to keep schools open amid the pandemic. It’s come across in media appearances, in tweets and at Wednesday’s news conference, where Biden said he wanted to “put in perspective” a question about why some schools are closing.“Very few schools are closing,” Biden said, leaning into the microphone for emphasis. “Over 95 percent are still open.”One reason for the White House’s sensitivity: Democrats took notice when Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s office in nearby Virginia, after he campaigned on a message that school shutdowns over covid were a mistake. It’s a hot-button political issue that Biden doesn’t want to cede to the GOP ahead of the midterms.Another reason: Teachers and parents have increasingly complained that the White House’s promise to provide support and guidance to schools has fallen short. While Biden has overseen billions of dollars in covid aid to schools, there were few strings attached, and some schools haven’t spent the money on the tests and other protections that the White House expected. The Biden administration has renewed its efforts here, and last week promised it would send 10 million free tests to schools per month and take other steps to keep them open.But amid the omicron surge, there are teachers who are too sick to work and parents too worried to send their kids to school at all. So a few days ago, I asked Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator — does it really make sense to keep all schools open, as cases soar?“It’s so important for schools to be open for learning, for mental health for parents,” Zients countered, defending the White House strategy. “We have the tools and know how to do it.”
4:59 p.m.
“What’s Mitch for?” Biden asked about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Everything’s a choice.” At the dawn of a midterm year, Biden was seeking throughout his remarks to draw attention to Republicans’ obstruction and cast a spotlight on the question of what they support. The challenge for Biden is that midterm elections have long tended to be a referendum on the party in power. And for now, Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress.
4:57 p.m.
Headshot of Seung Min Kim
White House reporter
Regarding McConnell and what he stands for, reporters on Capitol Hill asked the Senate minority leader this afternoon about the GOP agenda. Though McConnell acknowledged that a question about the agenda is a “very good” one, he declined to answer, noting, “I’ll let you know when we take it back.” That dodge makes it clear that Republicans in neither the House nor the Senate are running on actual policy priorities in November but rather focusing on it squarely as a referendum over Biden’s presidency. But Democrats are sure to go after the GOP as having no agenda aside from attacking the president.
4:54 p.m.
Headshot of Ashley Parker
White House Bureau Chief
One reason that Biden’s team has largely limited the number of news conferences and interviews he has done is because he’s often liable to go off script and say something that requires a bit of after-the-fact explanation or back-peddling. Today, it seems as if there are going to be A LOT of questions about what exactly he meant when he appeared to imply that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine might be acceptable.
4:53 p.m.
“Very few schools are closing, over 95 percent are still open,” Biden said in a mock whisper, effectively arguing that the pandemic’s effect on school closures has been overstated in media reports. But some Democratic political strategists have worried that any interruptions to keeping kids in schools — including individual exposures and temporary remote learning setups — could be a powerful motivator in elections and spur people to vote for Republicans. Finding the right tone on how to talk about the issue could be key in upcoming battleground contests.
4:49 p.m.
Headshot of Jeff Stein
White House economics reporter
Biden on Wednesday touted the drop in child poverty during his first year in office, a positive development in his administration that is now extremely vulnerable because of a stalemate between the White House and Congress.Biden said child poverty last year fell by roughly 40 percent — which the president called the biggest drop in U.S. history — because of his administration’s child tax credit. Passed as part of the American Rescue Plan last March, the child tax credit expanded an existing benefit and extended it to millions of America’s poorest families.But that enhanced benefit — authorized by Congress for only one year — expired at the end of 2021, leaving millions of families in the lurch and potentially depriving Democrats of a key talking point. The White House has sought to extend it as part of its Build Back Better economic agenda but has been unable to pass that measure because of resistance from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Manchin wants to impose new limitations on the Child Tax Credit, which would sharply limit its antipoverty impact.If the policy is not renewed, child poverty will spike in 2022 in Biden’s second year, just as it fell in his first.
4:47 p.m.
Headshot of Ashley Parker
White House Bureau Chief
I was struck by Biden’s comment that he “did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.” Having covered the first full year of his presidency, I absolutely believe he’s being sincere when he says this. But it feels like he should, in fact, have anticipated this; after all, he was Obama’s No. 2 when Republicans for eight years did the exact same thing to Obama.
4:40 p.m.
Headshot of Dan Diamond
National reporter investigating health politics and policy
In a speech expected to be dominated with talk of covid strategies and legislative priorities, Biden’s shout out on surprise medical bills was, well, a bit of a surprise.“We just made surprise medical bills illegal in this country,” Biden said near the beginning of his remarks on Wednesday. “Those [hospital] bills you get that you don't expect? … No more.”The president is correct: Health providers can no longer send big bills to insured patients when they get care from someone outside their network, under a ban that took effect on Jan. 1, 2022. And it’s a policy win that has gotten bipartisan support.But as The Post’s Rachel Roubein detailed this month, that win began with work under former president Donald Trump, with Congress outlawing the practice in December 2020. And there’s still a fair amount of work left, with industry groups trying to deep-six the new consumer practices in court, and many consumers not aware that the new rules even exist.
4:31 p.m.
Headshot of Dan Diamond
National reporter investigating health politics and policy
Biden acknowledged some criticism of the nation’s covid strategy.“I know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country, and we know why. Covid-19,” the president said in his remarks Wednesday, acknowledging setbacks in the White House’s strategy. “Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we’re doing more now.”The president has been trying to thread a messaging needle on the pandemic. After campaigning on a plan to defeat covid, Biden is increasingly acknowledging that the virus is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. And as covid cases and hospitalizations surged again this winter, Americans have soured on the White House’s efforts.About 49 percent of Americans said that Biden was doing a good job handling the covid outbreak, down from 67 percent who approved of his response last March, a period when the virus was receding, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll released this week.Some countries are trying to fight covid to a draw, but the president said he wouldn’t accept that. “Some people may call what’s happening now ‘the new normal,’ ” Biden said. “I call it a job not yet finished,” he said, touting the vaccines, tests and other tools “to save lives and keep businesses and schools open.”
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