Background Press Briefing on President Biden’s Meetings at the United Nations
Intercontinental New York Barclay
New York, New York
5:39 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Cool. Fire away.
Q Well, what were the President and President Macron speaking about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They spoke about Ukraine primarily. And —
Q Are you “Senior White House Official” or “Senior Administration”? Just — sorry, for the —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “White House” is fine, I think. Right?
WHITE HOUSE AIDE: That’s fine.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. They spoke about Ukraine primarily because of, obviously, the developments that happened overnight. It was meant to be a very brief conversation, but, you know, just because there was a lot to cover and the two of them have the kind of relationship where they really dig in and explore, you know, the options available, the paths forward. They each had — obviously, had a number of conversations over the last several weeks with different leaders, so they were comparing notes and also talking about what the path looks like for the weeks and months ahead.
And then President Macron also talked to the President about his meeting yesterday with President Raisi and what his impressions were based on that about the JCPOA.
So that’s basically what they talked about.
Q Can you tell us a little bit more about the latter — about what the impressions are for JCPOA and (inaudible) deal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t want to get into, you know, the President Macron’s personal impressions of the meeting with President Raisi. I think I have to leave that to him to do. I can’t read that out secondhand.
I would say that the — in both his meeting with Prime Minister Truss and with President Macron, it’s clear that the E3 and the United States are very much on the same page in terms of a clear and consistent message that, really, the ball is in Iran’s court, that there is a deal on the table and they should take it.
Q The President got into this a bit in his speech about what Putin said about the reservists and nuclear war. How do you interpret what Putin is doing? Is it an act of desperation or what?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what I said [redacted] is throwing together a sham referendum on three days’ notice and abandoning all pretense of legitimacy or seriousness is not exactly an act of confidence or strength. In fact, it’s the opposite. It is an act of weakness.
And declaring a mobilization and then refining the declaration of mobilization to try to have it both ways — on the one hand, indicate you’re calling a bunch of people up; on the other hand, saying we’re not calling too many people up — that also indicates a very pressurized environment in Russia.
And the fact that he has to resort to something he clearly didn’t want to do is a reflection of the fact that his campaign in Ukraine is failing. It’s failing to achieve the strategic objectives he set out. And he is left with bad options, one of them being the one he’s chosen to pursue.
And so, fundamentally, this is the result of Russia and Putin being in bad shape, not in good shape, when it comes to their military campaign in Ukraine.
Q But how concerned are you that, given that he’s in such bad shape, that he could, you know, do something more drastic, more — I mean, you know, is a frustrated Putin the more dangerous Putin?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, we have rested on two basic principles from the very beginning: One, we are going to provide material support to Ukraine — security support, economic support, humanitarian support — for as long as it takes, and we will not be deterred in doing so by anyone and certainly not by Putin. Second, we are not looking to end up in a direct war with Russia. And we, of course, are attentive to managing escalation in this conflict.
We believe that we have been able to navigate those two basic lines for the last several months, and nothing about what’s happened in the last 24 hours changes either the President’s conviction to stick with Ukraine as long as it takes or for us to pay close attention to all the various scenarios that could unfold including escalation scenarios, and we are planning against those. We are watching carefully to see for any signs of potential escalation. And we are sending very clear and strong messages to Russia about the consequences of escalation.
So, really, this is another episode in what has been a series of episodes over the course of this war where Putin has tried to rattle his saber, tried to scare us off, tried to make us think twice about our strategy. He has not succeeded before; he won’t succeed now. But that doesn’t mean that, you know, we’re blind to the dynamics that could relate to escalation and that we aren’t thinking carefully through, in close consultation with our allies and with the Ukrainians, how we would deal with that.
Q Is there anything on that though that you’ve seen any signs that have changed your level of concerns of him doing something drastically imminent with either on nuclear or unconventional weapons?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don’t see anything in terms of specific information, signals, or moves that would indicate that. And we have heard him before wave around the nuclear card, and we heard it again in his speech today. And, in fact, the language and formula he used today is quite similar to how he’s spoken before.
Q Does the mobilization change anything on the battlefield in the near term? Or does it take so long to call up and train any potential forces that it really doesn’t have an impact on the lay of the land right now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there’s an obvious trade-off: The speed with which they move forces to the front will dictate the effectiveness of those forces. If they go fast, it means they’re throwing a bunch of folks who have not had fresh training or integration into an effective joint force structure. And the more they do to train and integrate, the longer it’s going to take.
So this is a basic problem of arithmetic and time for Putin, and neither of them are really on his side right at the moment.
Q Can you talk a little bit about the meeting with Liz Truss and, more specifically, how you would characterize the discussion about the Northern Ireland Protocol?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was a candid discussion in which the Prime Minister laid out her view, and the President made very clear what he said publicly, which is that protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the Good Friday Agreement is a matter of bipartisan importance in the United States and a matter of personal importance to him as President. And he was very clear about that.
The Prime Minister read out to him her conversations of — on the subject with both Ursula von der Leyen and with the Taoiseach.
And I think the two of them left understanding each other well. And now we’ll see how things develop with respect to potential discussions between the UK and the EU on the protocol.
Q Looping back to Russia for a moment, are you and your team inferring anything from the specific words that Vladimir Putin used this morning? Like, “territory,” about — about “integrity.” I can’t remember exactly, but he —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You mean talking about, “This is going to be Russian territory and…” —
Q His, sort of, phraseology. What do you think he meant by that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Russian approach to this war has been quite legalistic from the beginning, and terming it a “special military operation” rather than a “war”; you know, trying to describe a casus belli rooted in these ridiculous, fanciful claims of genocide. They’ve tried to construct legal rationales for basically everything they’ve done, and the world has seen through them: 141 votes at the General Assembly when he went in.
So now we have a new construction even more farcical and fanciful than some of the previous ones, which is that, magically, these contested territories of Ukraine are going to vote in this thrown-together referendum and then be annexed into Russia. And, oh, presto, now they’re part of sovereign Russian territory.
That’s complete farce and absurdity on its face, and it’s not going to change dynamics on the ground with respect to Ukrainian operations. It’s not going to change our support for Ukraine. I think it will lead to different rhetoric and different legal framing from the Russian side. But, fundamentally, the Russians need to understand that the United States, our allies and partners, and, frankly, the overwhelmingly vast majority of countries in the world, they’re not going to recognize any of this as legitimate.
So we have confidence that the ploy he’s trying to undertake here is not ultimately going to succeed.
Q But specifically though, do you think that what he’s saying is “If these areas join our country — Russia — through these referenda, and if you then tried — or if Ukraine or anyone tries to attack them, we can use non-conventional weapons for that”?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you’d have to look back at his precise formula. He didn’t say “non-conventional weapons” in that particular formula. He said, “We can use all tools at our disposal,” which could imply what you say. But I don’t think he used that exact phrase.
Look, here’s how we look at it. Think about his legal rationale when he started the war: He recognizes independent countries, then says Russia has a security obligation to defend those countries — a sort of bizarro Russian version of Article 5 for these sham republics. That didn’t stop Ukraine from fighting on the territory of those two oblasts, Luhansk and Donetsk. It hasn’t stopped them from retaking some territory in Luhansk and Donetsk.
And so there is, in our view, one world — the fictitious Russian legal world — and then there’s the real world. And the thing that is incumbent upon us is to ensure that as we work with the international community, the community of nations who signed up to the U.N. Charter, that the smallest number of countries possible even entertain the idea of recognizing this as legitimate. We think that that number of countries will be vanishingly small, because —
And if you saw what China said today, they didn’t say, “Oh, hey, yeah, you know, it kind of makes sense. It’d be interesting once they annex and it’s Russian territory.” They said, “Hey, knock it off. Ceasefire, please.”
So — and if you look at what happened with the experience with Crimea and how recognition went with respect to Crimea and the international community and the vote in the General Assembly following that, we think that — we are confident that he will not be able to sell to the world some kind of credible argument that this actually is Russian territory. And as a result, the play he’s running here is not going to succeed.
Q Did you get the sense that the countries that were sitting on the fence when the U.N. held that vote, have they since come around? Are you bringing them around to condemning Russia and acting, you know, in the way that you would like them to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, look, we’ve taken a position from the start that we are not going to — we were not going to come with a heavy hand on every country that abstained on the General Assembly vote. We were going to let countries reach their own conclusions. We were going to shape the arguments for them, and we were going to point out to them the reality of what was happening.
And if you heard the President’s speech today, it wasn’t hectoring or demanding of the world. It was just a simple laydown of the truth and the facts. And we think that that has borne fruit insofar as you are seeing increasing signs of countries that did abstain, to include countries like India speaking out in a different way, including directly in front of Putin. And, you know, we’d like to see more than that, obviously, in the days ahead.
But our focus is on ensuring, specifically on this question of these referendums and this potential annexation, that the world roundly rejects the notion that this is legitimate. And we have every reason to believe, based on recent history and on the simple fact that it’s just so absurd and so counter to the U.N. Charter, that that’s how things will end up bearing out.
Q This protest that we saw in Russia — I mean, I don’t know how widespread it is or how many number of people are involved, but what does that tell us about the situation inside Russia?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it’s too soon to tell. You know, we’ve seen reports of protests in several cities, and we’ve seen the detention of individuals who participated in those protests.
But, you know, this is the kind of fog-of-protest moment right now. It’ll take a little while for us to really understand what the dynamics are in the street and then, of course, what the dynamics are among the various key stakeholders in Russia, whether it’s the business elite or the security services or others. And that’s something we will continue to watch in the days ahead.
Q On the Iranian drones — you know, as you guys were rolling out the intelligence you guys had on that, it seemed more about the desperation that the Russians were showing where they had to basically go to a pariah bazaar to pick up their weaponry. But it seems that these drones are becoming useful tools in the fight for Russia. There’s been a lot of reports about — I think we’ve seen some, like, HIMARS that were taken out by these drones. How concerned are you guys about this as, you know, a good weapon for them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The United States has faced attacks from these one-way Iranian attack drones. So if there was anybody suggesting these are not seriously lethal tools of war, I don’t know who that person is, but they clearly haven’t been paying attention with respect to the U.S. government.
It still is an act of desperation insofar as they are stuck with Iran and other outlier states, in terms of getting weaponry, because China is not giving it to them, India is not giving it to them, Turkey is not giving it to them, et cetera.
This is a serious weapon, just as the weapon it’s intended to replace, which is the precision-guided munitions that the Russians had depleted was a serious weapon. And the logic behind what the Russians were trying to do — you know, get something precision-guided to be able to hold at-risk Ukrainian command and control and Ukrainian weapon systems is — you know, understandable logic.
But we do not believe that — you know, that Russia can, through the acquisition of arms from Iran, you know, fundamentally alter its strategic circumstance on the battlefield.
And so, it’s something we need to deal with at a tactical level, and we’re working with the Ukrainians to do that.
One of the things that was in either the last PDA or the one before it — they’re coming so steadily now and with so much packed into them, and I can’t recall which — was a significant number of counter-UAS systems, which we’re providing to the Ukrainians so that they have countermeasures against these drones.
Q On climate change, I don’t know if you saw that there’s been some news about David Malpass refusing to say whether or not he’s a climate change denier. And there are some critics who are calling for him to step down from the World Bank and be replaced at the World Bank. Any discussion on that at all yet?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ve only seen that secondhand, so I don’t want to comment on it until I get the chance to read the full account and also consult with colleagues who’ve obviously processed it to a greater extent than I have. But I intend to do that in short order because it’s obviously — it obviously raises eyebrows.
Q What do you think it’s going to mean for European unity on Ukraine and just, you know, U.S.-Italy relations if Meloni wins this weekend?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We will have to — whoever ends up as the new prime minister of Italy, the President will have to have an early conversation and then take measure of that person and make a determination about what it’s going to mean. It’s a little hard to tell right now in the heat of a political campaign, without knowing how a coalition comes together, exactly what this is going to look like. So I don’t want to predict or characterize because there’s so many uncertain variables.
What I will say is this: We do not believe that, no matter how this turns out, Italy is somehow going to drop out of the Western coalition of countries supporting Ukraine, and I don’t think our key partners in Europe believe that either.
So that doesn’t mean it’s going to be exactly the same as it was under Draghi. But I think this kind of “sky is falling” narrative out there about the Italian election doesn’t square with our expectations of what’s likely to unfold.
But more specific than that, I think it will be important to see how things play out, see how — whatever coalition comes together. And then, I can tell you, the President will be eager to have an early and substantive conversation to try to ensure that the cohesion that’s been so important to the strategy in Ukraine remains steadfast.
Q At the end of the Global Fund event, it looked like the President had a pull-aside. Do you know anything about that? Was — we’ve been hearing he was going to meet with the South Koreans today.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, he had an opportunity to engage with President Yoon. And we’ll put out a readout of that at some point soon, as soon as we pull that together.
Q Can you talk a little about the Philippine meeting tomorrow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, this will be his first opportunity to meet with President Marcos. He spoke with him briefly on the phone the night that he was elected, and we’ve had good engagement at senior levels of our Cabinet in the Philippines.
And the President will be eager to talk to him about a range of issues, including obviously the state of the global economy and how it’s impacting the Philippines and how the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework can help us collectively improve the rules of the road in the Indo-Pacific. They’ll talk about the South China Sea. They’ll talk about the security relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines and the full breadth of issues in the alliance.
But it will be a good opportunity for a treaty ally of the United States with a new president who’s making his first trip to New York to have his first meeting with President Biden, who obviously has never had the opportunity to sit down with him before. So we’re really looking forward to that discussion.
Q Were the recent Chinese comments or lack of support for Russia’s moves part of the reason why the President went a little easier on China in his speech today than he normally does in these international settings? He only spoke about China for, you know, 30 seconds or something — a minute.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, actually, I think if you look back at his remarks last year, I’m not sure that the word “China” appeared in his remarks. It’d be worth taking a look at that, but I don’t believe that they did.
The U.N. General Assembly is just a different kind of audience to address. And so, everything he said is consistent with what he said before. And the themes and the thrust of his commentary — whether it’s on the contrast on infrastructure or the contrast on values, the pushback on coercion, the embrace of freedom of navigation — that was all there, but the framing and method of argument in the speech was meant to try to explain the U.S. position in a way that he thought would be most effective with a diverse audience of countries from around the world.
And he thought it was very important to say two things: One, we’re not seeking conflict or a new Cold War, and, two, we’re not asking countries to choose sides.
But then he went on to say we’re unabashed that we think ours is the right vision for the world, and we want to make the case to the countries of the world to join us in trying to advance that vision.
So the answer to your question is just: No, it’s not he went easier on China because of what they’re doing on Ukraine, or even that he went easier on China, per se. It’s more: Getting up and making this speech about “U.S. versus China” we don’t think would advance the fundamental objective of, you know, how we’re trying to relate to all the other countries in the world, even on the question of U.S.-China competition, if that makes sense.
Q When the President talks about UNSC reorganization or expansion —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Reform. Yeah.
Q “Reform.” I’m sorry. And he said, “opening it up to Asian countries, to African countries” — did he — do you have a framework in mind? How many countries? What would that look like?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So we’ve had many conversations about what the framework would look like. I would not say that we fixed on a precise formula, largely because this has got to be done in consultation with a lot of countries. And, you know, there are challenges in figuring out what exactly does African representation look like; what does representation from Latin America and the Caribbean look like.
You know, we have historically and continue to stand behind the idea that Germany, Japan, and India should be permanent members of the Security Council. And then the question is: For the announcement today that the United States supports a Latin American and Caribbean country and an African representative, what exactly that looks like, we would want to work through.
But I think him getting up and saying more non-permanent members and more permanent members, including with broad representation — that’s new. That’s something an American President has not stood before the U.N. General Assembly and said before. And it’s a good way to take us down a path towards ultimately getting reform.
And the question now really is where do China and Russia land on this question, and then how do we deal with competing claims to regional representation from different actors — which, you know, has been a continuing issue with the whole question of Security Council reform and expansion for many years.
Q Did you guys talk about Taiwan at all in either — I guess, in any of your discussions today? With him and the leaders, did Taiwan come up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. It came up in the conversation with both the UK and with France. And I’m not actually sure — because I personally wasn’t present for the discussion with President Yoon — whether it came up yet or not. So I’m waiting to get a readout on that.
But, I mean, this is a significant issue — the potential for instability in the Taiwan Strait and what it could mean for security in the Indo-Pacific and for the global economy. I mean, this is going to be an issue that the President talks about with, you know, allies and partners alike.
Q Was there any discussion about joint or combined training exercises with Taiwan?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Did Truss bring up this idea of seizing — of seize property — using that for reparations or to pay for the war? Did that come up at all?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That did not come up today. They did have a discussion about what the long-term needs would be for Ukraine in terms of reconstruction.
The Prime Minister made the point — and I don’t think I’m betraying any confidence by saying this — that only a fraction of Ukrainian schools are open right now and that, you know, this is a good individual example of the larger challenges facing the Ukrainian economy and Ukrainian society, even as they’re dealing with violence and war crimes and atrocities. But they didn’t get into specific payment mechanisms, like the frozen assets.
Q Is that something that you think is doable? Or is it problematic?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that it has to be subject to an extremely careful review and examination and close consultation with all of the countries who would be implicated in it and by it. And it is an area to proceed with extreme care. And I guess I’ll leave it at that for now.
Q Has the term “special relationship” officially been retired?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, because it didn’t come up today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. In fact, I’m quite certain we’ve used the term “special relationship” in the last couple of weeks — I hope. If we haven’t —
Q But the Brits don’t love it, right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, they don’t?
Q Truss doesn’t like it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, she doesn’t?
Q Truss doesn’t like it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Is that true?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I didn’t even know that. Okay. (Laughter.)
Q She finds it a little bit demeaning. Like, you know —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Demeaning of who?
Q Of them.
Q She says she wishes Biden would stop using the phrase.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: She said that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s not — I mean, Joe Bien didn’t invent the phrase. I don’t und- — (laughter) —
Q Winston Churchill did. Right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I — well, you guys have just broken news to me. I actually was not aware of that.
So, I have no further comment — (laughter) — until I can, you know — what’s the phrase? “We’ll shut it down until we can figure out what’s going on.” (Laughter.) Yeah, no, I’m just kidding.
Q But it doesn’t sound like she made any concessions today on this Good Friday — I mean, it — both sides remain where they were.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Here’s the way that I would characterize it: Is she, I think, sounded a constructive note about her engagements with both the European Union and the Republic of Ireland, and now we have to see where things go.
This was not a set to or a digging in.
Q Fair enough.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was, you know, a suggestion that there should be able to be a way forward here. And now we have to see whether that plays out. I don’t mean we, the United States; I mean, we — the U.S., the UK, the EU, the Republic, the people of Northern Ireland. This now has to — has to proceed.
Q And then lastly, did he say no trade treaty between U.S. and UK if Good Friday gets blown up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. He did not say that.
Q Was there any consternation about the President’s recent remarks about Taiwan from either the French President or the UK Prime Minister?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Or the South Korean leader?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t know, but I doubt it. But I haven’t — like I said, I haven’t had a chance to get a readout from that conversation yet.
Okay, thanks. Thanks, guys.
6:08 P.M. EDT