President Barack Obama delivered an unmistakable warning to Russia and Moscow-backed Ukrainian separatists on Thursday not to tamper with the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet apparently shot down over rebel-controlled territory.
With no hope for the roughly 300 people board the Boeing 777, Obama discussed the tragedy with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko by telephone and offered “all possible assistance immediately” to figure out what happened, the White House said in a summary of the call.
Poroshenko “welcomed the assistance of international investigators to ensure a thorough and transparent investigation of the crash site,” according to the summary.
“The presidents emphasized that all evidence from the crash site must remain in place on the territory of Ukraine until international investigators are able to examine all aspects of the tragedy,” the White House said.
That amounted to a warning to Ukrainian separatists who control the area – as well as to their patrons in Moscow – to ensure that critical evidence not disappear, either through looting or by willful tampering to conceal who was behind the tragedy.
Obama placed the telephone call from Air Force One as he jetted to New York City for a brace of Democratic fundraisers. He also called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Earlier, the president stopped in Wilmington, Del., for an event where he knocked Republicans over infrastructure funding.
While Obama kept to his heavily partisan public schedule, the White House portrayed the president as working hard behind the scenes to address the crisis.
Obama spoke to Secretary of State John Kerry by telephone, and later consulted CIA Director John Brennan, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Stephanie O’Sullivan, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and deputy national security advisers Lisa Monaco and Ben Rhodes, according to a White House list. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice were not among the publicly released names.
Earlier, Vice President Joe Biden declared that the jet, which was heading from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was apparently “shot down – not an accident, blown out of the sky.”
In remarks to the Netroots Nation gathering in Detroit, Biden laid out how the airliner, carrying some 300 people to Kuala Lumpur, went down near the border “apparently – I say apparently because I don't have the actual, we don't have all the details and I want to be sure of what I say – apparently had been shot down. Shot down. Not an accident. Blown out of the sky."
“We have seen reports that there may have been American citizens on board, and obviously, that’s our first concern," he added. "We’re now working every minute to confirm those reports as I speak. This is truly a grave situation.”
His remarks echoed Obama’s pledge, in Wilmington, to make it his “first priority” to figure out whether there were U.S. citizens on board.
“As a country, our thoughts and prayers are with all the families of the passengers, wherever they call home,” the president told supporters in Wilmington.
“Right now, we’re working to determine whether there were Americans citizens on board. That is our first priority,” Obama said. “I’ve directed my national security team to stay in close contact with the Ukrainian government. The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened, and why."
Before the vice president’s comments, officials at the White House and State Department had stubbornly fended off feverish speculation that Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine could have blown the airliner from the sky, insisting into the afternoon that they could not confirm any details.
Republican Senator John McCain said the United States should know what happened “within hours” and should respond “within minutes,” by moving to arm Ukrainian government forces if it turns out the separatists were to blame.
“We’ll have to give arms to the Ukrainians, which we’ve refused to do so far, shamefully. This will obviously affect our relations with Russia dramatically.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner took a wait-and-see approach, saying in a statement: “Many innocents were killed today. It is horrifying, and we await the facts. Right now, we should all take a moment to reflect, count our blessings, and convey our prayers to the loved ones of the victims.”
The tragic incident seemed certain to pour fuel on burning passions in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which has annexed the strategic Crimean Peninsula. On Wednesday, Obama and European leaders unveiled the latest round of economic sanctions meant to bring Moscow to heel.
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen and a top aide to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had already been expected in Congress to brief lawmakers behind closed doors on nuclear talks with Iran. Officials said they now expected those discussions to broaden to include the airplane tragedy.
Before leaving the White House for Delaware for a speech knocking Republicans over infrastructure funding and later heading to New York for a pair of Democratic fundraisers, Obama spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One that Putin had raised the question of early reports about the plane toward the end of the call.
In a separate statement, Putin’s office noted that “the Russian leader informed the U.S. president of the report received from air traffic controllers immediately prior to their conversation, about the crash of a Malaysian airplane over the Ukrainian territory.”
Earlier, Obama went ahead with a photo op at a popular Wilmington, Del., restaurant called the Charcoal Pit, posing for photos, picking up a baby and dropping the name of the vice president, whose home is nearby.
“Me and Joe, we share shakes all the time,” he said. “Biden told me the burgers are pretty good.”
Obama ordered a medium-well done “Pit Special” – a four-ounce burger with fries – with lettuce and tomato. He also requested a glass of water with lemon.
As he left the White House at around 11:33 a.m. EST, the president ignored a shouted question about what he knew about the ill-fated flight.
Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.