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WASHINGTON — After a year of avoiding regular solo press conferences and frequent interviews with reporters, President Joe Biden took the opposite approach Wednesday.
For 1 hour and 51 minutes, Biden stood at a lectern in the White House East room, fielding more than 180 questions from 24 reporters. Almost no issue went untouched.
It was a push to reset the narrative after a series of setbacks and floundering poll numbers. Biden touted an improving economy and his administration's handing of COVID-19, while reminding Americans of two overshadowed legislative wins: passage of the American Rescue Plan and a historic bipartisan infrastructure law.
"You want to go for another hour or two?" Biden said more than halfway in.
But along the way, Biden – known for his share of gaffes – made a few statements that raised eyebrows.
One on Russian military escalation on Ukraine's border prompted a rebuke from Ukraine's president. Another on the legitimacy of the 2022 midterm elections drew comparisons to former President Donald Trump. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed miffed about Biden's description of passing his Build Back Better agenda in "chunks."
It prompted the White House to play clean-up Thursday, issuing statements and fielding questions to clarify the president's position.
Here's a breakdown of what Biden said during Wednesday's press conference, the backlash (or confusion) and how the White House addressed it.
1. A 'minor incursion' into Ukraine
What Biden said: Addressing Russia's military presence along the Ukraine's border, Biden said a "minor incursion" by Russia into Ukraine might not merit a strong international response.
It came as the president was asked why sanctions would deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine when they have not worked in the past.
"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. "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, etc."
He added: "But if they actually do what they're capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia."
Asked to clarify later in the press conference what he meant by "minor incursion," Biden said if Russian pursues "something significantly short of a significant invasion." He pointed to cyberattacks as an example.
The backlash: Biden's comments triggered immediate criticism from Republican lawmakers. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Biden gave Putin "the green light to launch a ‘minor incursion'"
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took issue as well, tweeting, "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. 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."
The cleanup: Shortly after the press conference, Psaki issued a statement that said the president has been clear with Putin that "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 on Thursday Biden's "minor incursion" remark referred to the range of tactics Russian has undertaken in the past including cyberattacks and "the little green men."
"The point he was making is that we have a range of tools," Psaki said.
Biden reaffirmed his position to reporters before a meeting with his infrastructure task force Thursday. "I've been absolutely clear with President Putin," Biden said. "He has no misunderstanding. If any – any – assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion."
2. An 'illegitimate' election
What Biden said: Biden was asked whether the 2022 midterm elections could in any way be illegitimate if Republican-controlled state legislatures move ahead with new voting restrictions and federal voting rights legislation isn't passed.
"I think it easily could be illegitimate," Biden said. "Imagine if, in fact, Trump has succeeded in convincing Pence to not count the votes."
The reporter clarified that he was asking about this year's midterm elections, not a presidential election.
Biden said, "The increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these reforms passed.
The backlash: Republicans pounced on the comments, calling it a double-standard for Biden to call into question the legitimacy of the 2022 election after Democrats slammed Trump for doing just that in 2020.
Even before votes were cast, Trump launched a year-long assault on mail-voting and said the results would be rigged. After he lost, Trump said the election was stolen and made a series of baseless, false claims and lawsuits alleging fraud.
"It is irresponsible for an American president, in any way, to delegitimize an election," Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a Trump critic, said. "Without question, our elections are fair and legitimate. This is the same unfortunate path our former president went down and as we know, it is a dangerous and highly divisive course. It was unacceptable then and it is unacceptable now."
The cleanup: On Thursday, Psaki issued a statement saying Biden "was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election. He was making the opposite point." She pointed to record turnout in the 2020 election in the face of a pandemic.
"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 Big Lie is putting our democracy at risk. We’re fighting to protect it."
During Thursday's White House press briefing, Psaki was asked whether the president believes the 2022 election is legitimate if nothing is changed and federal voting rights legislation is not adopted.
"Yes," Psaki said.
3. Passing Build Back Better in 'big chunks'
What Biden said: Biden said he would likely have to pass his $1.75 trillion social-spending plan, Build Back Better," in "big chunks" with it stalled in the Senate.
"I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law," Biden said.
Later in the news conference, he was asked whether that means he's considering breaking the package into individual portions. The Build Back Better plan includes subsidized child care, universal pre-K, prescription drug price measures, home caregiving expansion and an assortment of climate initiatives.
"It's clear to me that we're going to have to probably break it up," Biden said, adding that he thinks he can get at least an initial $500 billion for energy and environmental issues passed. He said some of the bill's opponents "support a number of the things in there," singling out Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who has opposed the bill. Biden said Manchin supports components such as pre-K.
"I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later."
The backlash: This didn't result in a backlash, per se, but confusion over semantics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took exception with the president's word choice of "chunks," though signaled support for a smaller Build Back Better bill.
"Chunks is an interesting word," she said. "What the president calls 'chunks,' I would hope would be a major bill going forward. It may be more limited but it is still significant."
Pelosi said members of her party who've suggested breaking up the bill into smaller ones are ignoring the reconciliation budget process Democrats need to use in order to circumvent a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
"This is a reconciliation bill. When people say, 'let's divide it up,' they don't understand the process,” she said.
Pelosi added "we may have to rename" the bill.
The cleanup: Psaki clarified the president's position during Thursday's press briefing, saying Biden wants to get as much as possible passed in the existing Build Back Better bill through the budget reconciliation process.
"He's talking about getting a big chunk, as much as you can get done where we can get agreement of 50 members of the Senate," Psaki said.
She said right now the White House is "determining how big that chunk be," noting that anything proposed individually outside of the reconciliation process would need 60 votes. That would require the support of 10 Republicans.
Contributing: Matthew Brown, Rebecca Morin, Courtney Subramanian
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White House plays cleanup after Biden's marathon press conference