The Memo: Biden tries to retract his gift to Putin

The Kremlin is seen after sunset from Zaryadye Park near Red Square in Moscow
The Kremlin is seen after sunset from Zaryadye Park near Red Square in Moscow
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President Biden may have handed Russian President Vladimir Putin a gift - and now he's trying to take it back.

Biden appeared to play into Putin's hands with his unscripted assertion during a big speech in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday that the Russian president "cannot remain in power."

The words sounded to many people like a call for regime change in Moscow. And, as such, they dovetailed far too well with Putin's frequent claims that he and his nation are the targets of Western plotting and aggression.

The comment could at the least fuel suspicion among Russian people that the West has a more expansive agenda than simply rebuffing the invasion of Ukraine. At worst, the remark could even gird their willingness to stand with Putin amid heavy sanctions and international opprobrium.

Biden's initial remark set off a scramble that has lasted for two days.

The White House is now seeing the controversy overshadow other domestic issues, such as the release of the president's budget on Monday.

The task of cleaning up the mess has fallen to Biden himself.

"I was expressing the moral outrage I felt ... [at] the actions of this man," Biden told reporters in the State Dining Room of the White House on Monday. "I wasn't then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change."

A short time later, an irritated Biden told Peter Doocy of Fox News, "Nobody believes I was talking about taking down Putin. Nobody believes that."

Those comments followed Secretary of State Antony Blinken's assertion at the weekend that "we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter."

The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, had also joined the clean-up effort on Sunday, telling CNN's "State of the Union" that Biden had given voice to a "principled human reaction" after meeting Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

And well before that, an unnamed White House official claimed within a short time after Biden's Warsaw speech ended that "The president's point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin's power in Russia, or regime change."

There were the first signs that the White House could be beginning to turn the page on Monday.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told this column via email that he thought the comments were "a good way to finesse and more important get beyond a problem.

"By making clear Saturday's remarks did not constitute a policy change, the comment today provides the president and the administration with the flexibility and space to conduct whatever foreign policy toward, and diplomacy with, Russia is required to deal with Ukraine or other matters," Haass added.

Haass had previously been among the foreign policy experts most critical of Biden's initial comment in the Warsaw speech, warning in a tweet that "Putin will see it as confirmation of what he's believed all along. Bad lapse in discipline that runs risk of extending the scope and duration of the war."

But if Biden's cleanup on Monday mollified figures like Haass, it seems likely that Republican elected officials will be less generous.

On Sunday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Biden's comment was "a mistake" that "plays into the hands of the Russian propagandists and plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin."

The same day, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) acknowledged to CNN that Biden's overall address in Warsaw was "a good speech" but added, "There was a horrendous gaffe right at the end of it. I just wish he would stay on-script."

On Monday, after Biden's latest remarks, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee emailed reporters to blast the White House event as "an insult to the American people." The spokesman, Tommy Pigott, complained of Biden that "instead of taking responsibility, he has chosen to deny reality."

Of course, there are many Americans who will welcome Biden's remarks, given Putin's long record of belligerent behavior and the grievous suffering that has been inflicted on the people of Ukraine since Moscow's invasion began on Feb. 24.

There is an argument to be made for moral clarity - and for the notion that Biden's comment was simply a statement of the obvious. Everyone knows Biden and other Western leaders would prefer a less autocratic and aggressive figure than Putin in the Kremlin.

"He shouldn't remain in power just like, you know, bad people shouldn't continue to do bad things. But it doesn't mean we have a fundamental policy to do anything to take Putin down in any way," Biden told CNN's Kaitlan Collins at Monday's White House event. "This is just stating a simple fact that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable."

Biden knows as well as anyone, however, that Ukraine is highly unlikely to win a clear-cut military victory in its struggle against Russia.

That means the only successful conclusion to the conflict has to involve negotiations - a process in which Putin will be perhaps the single most important player.

In that context, it's hard to dispute that Biden's Warsaw comments were a misstep - and one that Moscow instantly did its best to exploit.

The leadership of Russia "is not for Biden to decide," a Kremlin spokesman said at the weekend. "The president of Russia is elected by Russians."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.