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Biden’s marathon Q&A forces White House to play cleanup — twice

The explanations don’t really mesh with what Biden said, though

President Biden held a news conference on Jan. 19 as his administration approaches one year in office. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Rep. James E. Clyburn as a Republican and the House minority whip. He is a Democrat and the majority whip. The article has been corrected.

President Biden clearly wanted to send a message at Wednesday’s news conference. After the media complained for the better part of a year about their lack of access to him, Biden spoke and answered questions for nearly two hours — and he suggested/joked repeatedly that it might go on for hours more. The message: I’m not hiding from this.

But the whole thing also wound up reinforcing why he generally has been kept out of such lengthy back-and-forths.

On two extremely important issues, Biden offered comments that the White House has now been forced to clean up. The first was his comment that a “minor incursion” by Russia in Ukraine might not merit such a serious and unified response by the West. The second was his comment that future elections “easily could be illegitimate.”

In both cases, Biden said things that probably made sense to him at the time, and that the White House sought to clarify by suggesting Biden had merely been misinterpreted or his words misconstrued. But in both cases, the explanation of what he really meant differed significantly from what he said.

On the first — Ukraine — the reaction was swift.

“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does,” Biden said Wednesday. “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, etcetera.”

Biden said that a larger-scale invasion, by contrast, would be a “disaster” for Russia. But he went on to reiterate that a smaller action might not merit such a harsh and unified response from NATO. He also made a point to note that severe sanctions on Russia would have negative effects on the West, as well.

Within an hour of the news conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki released a statement featuring a much harder line.

“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.

Biden also echoed Psaki’s talking point Thursday, assuring the United States wouldn’t merely accept a “minor incursion.”

As we noted at the time, Biden’s comment made logical sense and probably reflected the realities of the situation with Ukraine. But it’s one thing for it to be the case; it’s another to state it publicly at a time when the name of the game is deterring Russia. Telegraphing a potential lack of unified resolve against a “minor incursion” just isn’t what you do.

And even after the White House’s initial cleanup, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saw fit Thursday to offer a direct rebuttal to Biden’s words.

“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” Zelensky said on Twitter. “Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power.”

Biden’s comments on the legitimacy of future elections also stood out almost immediately. They were somewhat in line with warnings from Democrats that Republican moves to pass voting restrictions in key states might disenfranchise people — particularly Black and Hispanic voters. But it’s one thing to say that; it’s another to suggest the results might well be illegitimate.

Even shortly after Biden’s comments, some allies distanced themselves from such rhetoric. “I don’t know if I’d use those terms,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told CNN’s Manu Raju. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) disagreed, telling CNN he is “absolutely concerned” that the results won’t be legitimate without reforms.

On Thursday morning, Psaki was again called in to massage what Biden had said.

“Lets be clear: @potus was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election,” Psaki maintained in a tweet. She added, referring to Donald Trump: “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 question Biden was responding to, though, was specifically about the 2022 midterm elections, and he reiterated twice that their legitimacy could indeed be cast into doubt:

Q: I wanted to clarify: A moment ago you were asked whether or not you believed that we would have free and fair elections in 2022 if some of these state legislatures reform their voting protocols. You said that it depends. Do you do you think that they would in any way be illegitimate?
BIDEN: Oh, yeah, I think it easily could be illegitimate. Imagine if, in fact, Trump had succeeded in convincing [then-Vice President] Pence to not count the votes.

The questioner then reiterated that the question was indeed about 2022, and Biden stood by the answer.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be [illegitimate],” Biden said. “The increase in the prospect of it being illegitimate is in direct proportion to not being able to get these reforms passed.

That is, indeed, casting doubt on the prospects that the 2022 elections will be legitimate — however well-founded you think that is. Even Psaki’s further comment confirms there is a situation in which those elections might well be illegitimate.

As with Biden’s Ukraine comment, there is a tough balance to be struck here. On Ukraine, it’s a balance between deterring Russia and pledging a response that you can back up, if and when the time comes. On voting rights, it’s a balance between arguing that passing a voting rights bill is vital to democracy, and wading into Trumpian territory of casting election results into doubt — something Democrats assured was A Very Bad Thing for democracy after 2020.

Indeed, the idea that future elections could be of dubious legitimacy is implicit in Democrats’ entire push right now. How do you say these Republican-passed state laws are suppressing votes and that we need to do XYZ right now to prevent something like Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, but also say future elections will be legitimate, no matter what? You can’t, because it doesn’t jibe with the overall argument, and politically speaking, it saps the effort of the immediacy Biden so badly needs.

But there’s a way to talk around these things, which is what sets politicians apart from normal people.

Biden has often addressed his frequent verbal flubs by quipping, “No one ever doubts I mean what I say; the problem is I sometimes say all that I mean.” Wednesday reinforced why the White House hasn’t been too keen on giving Biden extended amounts of time to say all that he means.