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5 times Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks have landed him in diplomatic hot water

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The White House and State Department did not return POLITICO’s requests for comment.

Here are a few of the times Biden has been bolder, and less diplomatic, than his aides may have liked:

Biden calls Chinese leader Xi a dictator

The U.S. has long been critical of China’s human rights record, condemning Beijing’s treatment of ethnic minority populations in Tibet and Xinjiang. It has also pushed for democracy in Hong Kong and condemned the violent suppression of peaceful protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as well as China’s imprisonment of dissidents. The State Department identifies China as an authoritarian country.

But the U.S. has seldom, if ever, directly condemned individual Chinese leaders as autocrats, even as Chinese paramount leader Xi Jingping has consolidated power over the past few years.

That changed in June, when Biden unexpectedly called Xi a “dictator” at a fundraiser in California.

Biden told the crowd that “the reason why Xi Jinping got very upset in terms of when I shot that balloon down with two box cars full of spy equipment is he didn’t know it was there.”

“That was the great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened,” Biden continued.

Beijing immediately pushed back, registering a formal protest and summoning the U.S. ambassador to Beijing for an official reprimand over the comment — further straining already-fractured relations between the nations.

Biden then attempted to downplay his comment, saying at a news conference with the Indian prime minister later that week that he expected to meet with Xi sometime in the near future and that he did not think the incident “had any real consequence.”

Again this week, after Biden and Xi met in San Francisco on Wednesday, Biden reiterated his earlier criticism of the Chinese leader: “Look, he is. He’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a communist country.” The comments prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visibly wince.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly condemned Biden’s remarks again. A spokesperson told reporters on Thursday that “this kind of speech is extremely wrong and is irresponsible political manipulation.”

Biden pledges to defend Taiwan

Officially, the Biden administration has continued the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, meaning the U.S. has not definitively stated whether it would intervene to defend the self-governing island in the event of an invasion by China.

But at various moments during his presidency, Biden has pledged to defend Taiwan if China were to invade and try to integrate it by force, prompting observers to say that strategic ambiguity is functionally dead.

At a CNN Town Hall in 2021, Biden said the U.S. has a “commitment” to Taiwan. In May and September 2022, Biden vowed that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion — prompting Beijing to warn that Biden’s comments had sent a “seriously erroneous signal to Taiwanese separatist independence forces.”

While the U.S. has been taking an increasingly aggressive tone toward China, and supplies the island with defensive weaponry, it still officially recognizes the government in Beijing as the legitimate government over all of China, including Taiwan, as part of its “One China” policy.

The White House and State Department have repeatedly walked back Biden’s comments on coming to Taiwan’s defense. Then-State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a May 2022 briefing that “our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait of course remains,” while also reiterating the U.S. commitment to provide the island with “military needs to defend itself.”

The U.S. is legislatively bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

Biden says Putin ‘cannot remain in power’

As the U.S. has supported Ukraine in its war with Russia, the Biden administration has condemned Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his threats towards NATO and the West. Unlike with China, U.S. officials have singled out Putin and his web of oligarchs with harsh sanctions and voiced their support for Russian dissidents and opposition leaders.

Yet the U.S. has stopped short of calling for regime change or providing Russian activists with material support as they seek to restore democracy in the country, and is typically careful not to provoke outrage from the Kremlin.

A speech from Biden in March 2022 raised alarm bells that that approach was changing. A month after Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden visited Poland and delivered a forceful speech in front of the Royal Palace in Warsaw, pledging Western support behind Kyiv as it repelled the Russian military.

But that speech was overshadowed by an off-hand comment. Biden said the war would not result in a Russian victory, exclaiming “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” in reference to Putin.

The White House quickly clarified that Biden was not calling for regime change, but meant that Putin should not be allowed to exercise power over the region.

The reaction was swift from Moscow and other world leaders. A Kremlin spokesperson told Reuters “that’s not for Biden to decide” because “the president of Russia is elected by Russians,” and later told Russia’s RBC that Biden was “the victim of many misconceptions.”

Even U.S. allies distanced themselves. French President Emmanuel Macron said “I wouldn’t use this type of wording because I continue to hold discussions with President Putin,” in an interview with TV channel France 3.

Biden claims the British are ‘screwing around’ in Northern Ireland

The U.S. was one of the most important interlocutors between Ireland, the U.K. and Northern Irish groups as all sides sought to end the period of violence in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.” In 1998, U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, which officially ended the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and President Bill Clinton expended incredible political and diplomatic capital to reach the peace deal.

The U.S. still maintains a special envoy to handle issues related to Northern Ireland. And even as tensions have grown in the wake of Brexit, the U.S. has sought to keep the peace and backed efforts to negotiate a Brexit deal that does not re-inflame tensions in Ireland.

When Biden visited the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in April to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, it was touted as a homecoming for a president who celebrates his Irish heritage and as an affirmation of the U.S.’ commitment to maintaining peace. Biden told local leaders in Belfast that “the enemies of peace will not prevail” and “democracy needs champions,” urging them to revive power-sharing in the wake of political gridlock.

But a month later, Biden told supporters at a New York fundraiser that he also visited Belfast “to make sure they weren’t — the Brits didn’t screw around and Northern Ireland didn’t walk away from their commitments.”

The remarks surprised British and Northern Ireland’s Unionist lawmakers.

Shailesh Vara, a Conservative MP who served briefly as Northern Ireland secretary, called it “deeply regrettable that President Biden has to use such language to further his reelection chances in the U.S.”

“It’s unbelievable and frightening to think this man is the leader of the free world,” said Democratic Unionist Sammy Wilson, who criticized Biden’s remarks as both hostile to unionists and politically incoherent. “If you believe that there should be a special relationship between the U.S. and U.K., then at least show us some respect.”

Biden slams Saudi Crown Prince for murder of Jamal Khashoggi

Since 1933, Saudi Arabia has been a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, allowing the U.S. to build military bases on its territory, providing the U.S. with critical crude oil and fighting together to liberate Kuwait after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of the Persian Gulf country.

To maintain the relationship, however, the U.S. has had to look past Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record, its treatment of women and its alleged support of terrorism. Israel, the War on Terror and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have also been flashpoints that have strained ties.

The U.S. has not been shy about criticizing its ally in the past, and politicians have regularly slammed the Saudi monarchy for its conduct. Yet Biden came into office with a particularly skeptical and harsh tone toward Riyadh than Biden.

In 2019 and 2020 of his presidential campaign, Biden condemned the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post and critic of the Saudi monarchy who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

At a Democratic primary debate in November 2019, Biden said the Saudis would “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s death.

“I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them,” Biden said. “We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”

Biden also said there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” and, in reference to the ongoing Yemeni civil war, said he would “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.”

The comments contrasted with then-President Donald Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders, and underscored Biden’s desire to pursue a human rights-focused foreign policy in the Oval Office.

But as president, Biden and his aides have lessened their hostility toward Riyadh. The administration released a U.S. intelligence report that said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation to kill Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident, but in February 2021, the administration said that it would not punish bin Salman for his role in the killing.

And in the summer of 2022, as oil prices soared in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hurting consumers and the president’s poll numbers, Biden visited Saudi Arabia and met with the crown prince. Later that year, the Biden administration ruled that the crown prince was immune from a lawsuit filed against him and others for their roles in the killing.

In recent months, the U.S. has also pursued a normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an effort that has required increased U.S. engagement with the Kingdom.

These moves prompted charges of hypocrisy by human rights groups and friends and relatives of Khashoggi, who say that Biden was prioritizing realpolitik over his promises.

“I always bring up human rights, but my position on Khashoggi has been so clear, if anyone doesn’t understand it in Saudi Arabia or otherwise they haven’t been around me for a while,” Biden told reporters in Israel during that trip. “The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is to promote U.S. interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert our influence in the Middle East.”


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