White House chief of staff Ron Klain on Thursday defended President Biden’s messaging on Russian movements in Ukraine after some of the president’s remarks a day prior prompted clarification from the White House, saying in an interview that there is “no ambiguity” about the United States’s response if Russia invades Ukraine.
During a nearly two hour press conference on Wednesday, the president initially seemed to suggest that Russia could face less severe consequences for invading Ukraine if it engaged in a “minor incursion” into the country.
“It depends on what he does as to what extent we’re going to be able to get total unity on the NATO front,” the president said, referencing the allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“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. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not to do,” Biden said.
But the White House quickly sought to clarify those comments.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said right after the press conference’s conclusion that “President Biden has been clear with the Russian President” that any military movement into Ukraine by Russia would prompt a “swift, severe and united” response by the U.S. and its allies.
Biden on Thursday also sought to clarify his remarks before an infrastructure event, saying, “I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin. He has no misunderstanding. If any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”
“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt asked Klain in an interview aired on Thursday if the White House could afford any gaffes about a U.S. response to Russia regarding its possible invasion into Ukraine, noting that the White House had sought to quickly clarify Biden’s comments.
“I think the President was quite clear and reiterated his point of view this morning. Very clearly. President Putin should have no doubt any move by the Russian assembled military across the border of Ukraine is an invasion,” Klain answered. “It will be met with a very severe economic response from the United States and our allies. There is no ambiguity about that — the president’s told that to President Putin directly. He reiterated it this morning. If President Putin makes this move, it will be a horrible mistake.”
Holt pressed again, asking if the White House could at least concede that Biden had at least been inarticulate when he issued comments over Russian movement into Ukraine on Wednesday.
“Lester, what I offer is that he has made his views very clear to President Putin, he has made his view clear to the allies. I think over the course of the press conference his views were quite clear and once again, he reiterated them again this morning. The president of Russia is on notice,” Klain affirmed.
The comments come as Russia has amassed over 127,000 troops at the Ukrainian border, according to a Ukrainian Defense Ministry intelligence assessment that was shared with CNN this week.
The United States and other nations are increasingly worried that Russia is readying itself for an invasion into Ukraine.
The remarks from Klain also come as the president struggles with lagging approval ratings, with an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll and a separate NBC News poll both placing his approval rating at 43 percent.
“Do you ask yourself how you managed to be upside down with these numbers given? This is an area that the president really had scored well on prior,” Holt asked, noting that the NBC News poll found that more than half of Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of the pandemic.
“I understand the frustration of the American people. We’re a year into this,” Klain said, adding that Americans had “suffered under President Trump with mismanagement and mistake.”
“We’re a year into fighting this pandemic, and we’re not where we want to be. The President said this yesterday. What the American people need to know is that we have put in place the right plans, the right policies, the right tools to help get through this pandemic,” Klain continued.