The President should avoid public speaking

President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron at a NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday.


Benoit Doppagne/Zuma Press

Some issues are just too important to leave to an unwritten Joe Biden. This isn’t CNN, and your humble correspondent isn’t a doctor, so this column won’t provide a remote diagnosis of the President’s mental health or an assessment of how his cognition compares to that of other world leaders. But these are dangerous times, and we would all be much safer if Mr. Biden made more use of prepared statements on issues such as weapons of mass destruction.

Two months after a bumpy press conference in which Mr. Biden hinted that a “small incursion” by Russia into Ukraine might be tolerable for the US and its allies, the president flew to Europe this week and somehow answered questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Yes, it is important for all of us to hear from our elected officials and assess the substance of what they say and the competence and conviction with which they represent their policies. But this particular elected official doesn’t seem up to the task. While we consider the implications, Mr. Biden should try to say as little as possible in public during an international crisis.

This presents a unique challenge as he happens to be the Acting President of the United States. But there is no constitutional obligation for the President to make off-the-cuff remarks or deliver speeches of any kind. If necessary, he can send e-mail messages to Congress instead of speaking to lawmakers.

Ahead of this week’s Europe trip and the President’s recent media adventure, Mr Biden’s political response to the Russian invasion was pretty clear: help the Ukrainians, sanction the Russians and try to avoid scenarios of getting into NATO forces could be drawn into The conflict. Then came the press conference on Thursday. Here is an excerpt from the White House transcript:

Q Hello. Thank you Mr President. So you warned about the real threat of using chemical weapons. Have you gathered specific information that suggests President Putin is using, deploying, or contemplating using these weapons?

And would the US or NATO respond with military action if he used chemical weapons?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I cannot answer the first question. I’m not giving you any intelligence, number one.

Number two, we would answer. We would reply if he used it. The type of answer would depend on the type of use.

So whether America goes to war ultimately depends on Vladimir Putin and what weapons he uses under what circumstances? The subject came up again a few minutes later:

Q … And for clarification on chemical weapons: could – if chemical weapons were used in Ukraine, would it trigger a NATO military response?

THE PRESIDENT: It would again – – it would trigger a reaction in kind if – you ask if NATO would cross the border or not; We would make that decision at the time.

A response in kind? A common definition of the term could lead to the assumption that Mr. Biden is contemplating a scenario in which he, too, goes beyond the pale. Columnist Tammy Bruce, who appears on Fox Business Network’s WSJ at Large this weekend, helpfully notes, “The use of chemical weapons violates international law. It’s certainly a moral abomination.” She adds that the President has been a politician for half a century. This is not a mistake due to lack of foreign policy experience. It’s something worse.

Thank goodness the White House was ready with a communications cleanup. Aboard Air Force One, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan responded to a press inquiry Friday:

Q Jake, President Biden, said at the press conference yesterday that the United States and NATO will respond in the same way if Russia uses chemical weapons in Ukraine, which would indicate they use chemical weapons back. Is that what he meant by “in kind”? Or what did he mean by that?

[MR. SULLIVAN]: No. No. And you heard him in another answer that we will respond accordingly – which means, you know, we will choose the form and nature of our response based on the nature of Russia’s actions, and we will do so in coordination with our allies . And we told the Russians, as the President said publicly a few weeks ago, there will be a heavy price if Russia uses chemical weapons.

And I will go no further than to say that under no circumstances does the United States intend to use chemical weapons.

Many of us will cling to the belief that the President was confused and did not understand what he was saying, all the more reason for him not to deviate from a prepared text at this dangerous time.

Of course, presidential silence isn’t a long-term strategy, but right now the world doesn’t need more misstatements from Biden on issues as momentous as weapons of mass destruction.


Mr. Freeman will host “WSJ at Large” this Friday at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Fox Business Network. The program will be repeated on Saturday and Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. EDT.


James Freeman is co-author of The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.


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(Teresa Vozzo helps put together Best of the Web.)

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