Remarks by President Biden in Press Conference
9:28 P.M. CEST
THE PRESIDENT: Good evening. Before I turn to today’s meetings, I want to say a short word about our ongoing fight against COVID-19 at home.
We’ve made enormous progress in the United States. Much of the country is returning to normal, and our economic growth is leading the world, and the number of cases and deaths are dropping dramatically. But there’s still too many lives being lost.
We’re still averaging, in the last seven days, loss of 370 deaths per day — 370 deaths. That’s significantly lower than at the peak of this crisis, but it’s still a real tragedy. We’re approaching a sad milestone: almost 600,000 lost lives because of COVID-19 in America.
My heart goes out to all those who have lost a loved one. I know that black hole that seems to consume you, that fills up your chest when you lose someone that’s close to you that you adored.
That’s why I continue to say to America: If you’ve not been vaccinated, get vaccinated. Get vaccinated as soon as possible. We have plenty of vaccination, plenty of sites. We have more work to do to beat this virus, and now is not the time to let our guard down. So, please — please get vaccinated as soon as possible. We’ve had enough pain. Enough pain.
Folks, I know it’s after 9:30, Brussels time — 9:30 p.m., and I’m still at NATO. You’re all excited about that. I know. (Laughter.)
But I’ve had a chance to meet with several leaders recently, and I’ve had calls with others. It’s been an incredibly productive day here.
I just finished a meeting with President Erdoğan of Turkey. We had a positive and productive meeting, much of it one-on-one. We had detailed discussions on how to proceed on a number of — a number of issues. Our two countries have big agendas. Our teams are going to continue our discussions, and I’m confident we’ll make real progress with Turkey and the United States.
But now I want to thank Secretary General Stoltenberg for leading a very successful NATO Summit today.
I had the honor of leading off the discussion today among the 30 nations, and I pointed out that we’re facing a once-in-a-century global health crisis. At the same time, the democratic values that undergird our Alliance are under increasing pressure both internally and externally. Russia and China are both seeking to drive a wedge in our transatlantic solidarity. We’re seeing an increase in malicious cyber activity.
But that our Alliance is the strong foundation on which we can — our collective security and our shared prosperity can continue to be built.
And I made a point to make clear that the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty is rock solid and unshakable. It’s a sacred commitment.
NATO — NATO stands together. That’s how we’ve met every other threat in the past. It’s our greatest strength as we meet our challenges of the future — and there are many.
And everyone — everyone in that room today understood the shared appreciation, quite frankly, that America is back.
We talked about Russia’s aggressive acts that pose a threat to NATO and to our collective security.
That’s why I met with the Bucharest 9 — the eastern flank allies — in advance of this summit. And today I also met with the leaders of the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
I shared with our Allies that I will convey to Pre- — what I’ll convey to President Putin: that I’m not looking for conflict with Russia, but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities and that we will not fail to defend the Transatlantic Alliance or stand up for democratic values.
As Allies, we also affirmed our continued support
for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
We agreed to keep consulting closely on nuclear deterrence, arms control, and strategic stability.
And there was a strong consensus among the leaders in that meeting on Afghanistan. Our troops are coming home, but we agreed that our diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian commitment to the Afghan people and our support for
the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces will endure.
And I welcomed our Allies and partners to recognize that counterterrorism — that counterterrorism efforts must continue to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a ca- — a safe haven for attacks on our countries, even as we take on terrorist networks in the Middle East and Africa.
And I’m deeply gratified that, as an Alliance, we adopted a far-reaching plan to make sure that NATO can meet the challenges
that we face today and in the future, not yesterday — the NATO 2030 agenda — and that we agreed to fully resource that agenda.
The last time NATO put together a strategic plan was back in 2010, when Russia was considered a partner and China wasn’t even mentioned.
We talked about the long-term systemic challenges that China’s activities pose to our collective security today.
We agreed to do more to enhance the resilience of our critical infrastructure around the world, including trusted telecommunications providers, supply chains, and energy networks.
We agreed to enhance our cooperation with our democratic partners in the Indo-Pacific to meet challenges that exist there.
We also endorsed a new cyber defense policy — NATO’s first in the past seven years — to improve the collective ability to defend against counter threats from state and nonstate actors against our networks and our critical infrastructure.
And we adopted a Climate Security Action Plan — which, several years ago, people thought we would never would do — for reducing emissions from NATO installations and adapting to the security risk of climate change while keeping a sharp — very sharp on our ability to deter and defend against threats.
And finally, we agreed that among the most important shared missions is renewing and strengthening the resilience of our democracies by pointing out we have to prove to the world and to our own people that democracy can still prevail against the challenges of our time and deliver for the needs of our people.
We have to root out corruption that siphons off our strength; guard against those who would stoke hatred and division for political gain — this phony populism; invest in strengthening the institutions that underpin and safeguard our cherished democratic values, as well as protecting the free press and independent judiciaries. All of those run the agenda.
That’s how I’ll prove that democracy and that our Alliance can still prevail against the challenges of our time and deliver for the needs and the needs of our people.
This is going to be looked at 25 years from now as whether or not we stepped up to the challenge, because there’s a lot of — a lot of autocracies that are counting on them being able to move more rapidly and successfully in an ever-complicated world than democracies can. We all concluded we’re going to prove them wrong.
And now I’m happy to take some questions.
Cecilia Vega of ABC.
Q Thank you so much, sir. Good evening. You mentioned your sit-down with Vladimir Putin and Russian aggression that came up in your conversations today. I’d like to ask you two questions, if I may, on that front. Is it your sense, walking into this meeting, that Americans back home shouldn’t expect much in terms of an outcome? Could you provide some specifics on what a successful meeting would look like to you? Are there going to be specific concessions you want Putin to make?
And then, I’ll just give you my follow-up right now. You’ve met Vladimir Putin before. What have you learned about him that informs how you approach this sit-down with him? And what’s your mindset walking into a meeting with a former KGB agent who you’ve said has no soul?
THE PRESIDENT: I’ll tell you all that when it’s over.
Look, I’ve been doing this a long time. The last thing anyone would do is negotiate in front of the world press as to how he’s going to approach a critical meeting with another adversary and/or someone who could be an adversary. It’s the last thing I’m going to do.
But I will tell you this: I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses. And if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind.
There need not be — we should decide where it’s in our mutual interest, in the interest of the world, to cooperate, and see if we can do that. And the areas where we don’t agree, make it clear what the red lines are.
I have met with him. He’s bright. He’s tough. And I have found that he is a — as they say, when you used to play ball, “a worthy adversary.”
But the fact is that I will be happy to talk with you when it’s over, and not before, about what the discussion will entail.
Nancy Cordes, CBS.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I also have two questions about Vladimir Putin. The first is: Have any of the world leaders you’ve met with this week expressed concern that by meeting with President Putin this early in your presidency, that it’ll look like you’re rewarding him?
THE PRESIDENT: What’s your second question?
Q The section — the second question is: What it will mean for the U.S.-Russia relationship if Aleksey Navalny were to die or be killed in prison.
THE PRESIDENT: Every world leader here, as a member of NATO, that spoke today — and most of them mentioned it — thanked me for meeting with Putin now. Every single one that spoke. And I think there were probably about 10 or 12 that spoke to it, saying they were happy that I did that and that I was going to do that. And they thought it was thoroughly appropriate that I do, and I had discussions with them about — in the open — about what they thought was important from their perspective and what they thought was not important.
And so the interesting thing is, I know — and I’m not being critical of the press — I really mean this; I give you my word — but, generically, you all thought, “Was Biden meeting him too soon?” I haven’t found a world leader who doesn’t think it’s not soon — it’s just soon enough. Everyone that I’ve spoken to, privately and publicly.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t some out there, but it’s not — it’s not likely that a head of state is going to stand up in front of 29 other heads of state and say, “Boy, I’m glad you’re doing this,” in effect. So there is a consensus. And they thanked me for being willing to talk with them about the meeting and what I was — what I intended to do.
So, I haven’t found any reluctance. There may be someone, but not in the open today or in the meetings I privately had as well.
And Navalny’s death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights. It would be a tragedy. It would do nothing but hurt his relationships with the rest of the world, in my view, and with me.
Jeff Zeleny, CNN.
Q Sir, good evening. Thank you. In a weekend interview, Vladimir Putin laughed at the suggestion that you had called him a “killer.” Is that still your belief, sir, that he is a killer?
And I’ll continue the trend, if you don’t mind, of asking a second question. Do you believe — if he does agree to cooperate, then what kind of a challenge do you find yourself in? How would you ever trust him? And if Ronald Reagan said “trust but verify,” what do you say to Vladimir Putin?
THE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.) To answer the first question — (laughs) — I’m laughing too.
They actually — I —
Q So he is a killer?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I mean, he has made clear that — the answer is: I believe he has, in the past, essentially acknowledged that he was — there were certain things that he would do or did do.
But look, when I was asked that question on air, I answered it honestly. But it’s not much of a — I don’t think it matters a whole lot, in terms of this next meeting we’re about to have.
The second question was rela- —
Q (Inaudible.) How would you ever trust him? And what is your version of “trust but verify”?
THE PRESIDENT: I’d verify first and then trust. In other words: Everything would have to be shown to be actually occurring. It’s not about, you know, trusting; it’s about agreeing.
You know, when we — when you write treaties with your adversaries, you don’t say, “I trust you.” You say, “This is what I expect, and if you violate the agreement you made then, we — the, quote, ‘The treaty is off. The agreement is off.'”
And I’m hoping that — that President Putin concludes that there is some interest, in terms of his own interests, in changing the perception that the world has of him, in terms of whether or not he will engage in behavior that’s more consistent with what is considered to be appropriate behavior for a head of state.
Anne Gearan, Washington Post.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Here at this meeting and earlier at the G7, you’ve said several times that America is back at Allies’ side, but a lot of those Allies are themselves pretty rattled by what happened on January 6th — an attempted overturning of your election — and they may still be alarmed by the continued hold that Donald Trump has over the Republican Party and the rise of nationalist figures like him around the world.
What do you say to those Allies, what have you been saying to them at these meetings about how the next President of the United States can keep any promises you make?
THE PRESIDENT: What I’m saying is them — to them is: Watch me. I mean, I’m not saying anything, quite frankly. I’m just going out — people, as I’ve said before, don’t doubt that I mean what I say, and they believe that I keep my commitments when I say it.
I’m not making any promises to anyone that I don’t believe are overwhelmingly likely to be kept. I think that we’re at a moment where — I mean, let me put it this way: You may have had a different view, but I think an awful lot of people thought that my showing up at the G7 would not produce any kind of enthusiasm about American leadership and about where America was. I would suggest that it didn’t turn out that way.
I would suggest that there is a — the leaders I’m dealing with in NATO and the G7 are leaders who know our recent history; know, generically, the character of the American people; and know where the vast center of the public stands — not Democrat, Republican — but who we are. We’re a decent, honorable nation.
And I think that they have seen things happen, as we have, that shocked them and surprised them that could have happened. But I think they, like I do, believe the American people are not going to sustain that kind of behavior.
And so, I — you know, I don’t want to get into the — the statistics because you know that old phrase of Disraeli’s: “There’s three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
But I think it’s appropriate to say that the Republican Party is vastly diminished in numbers; the leadership of the Republican Party is fractured; and the Trump wing of the party is the bulk of the party, but it makes up a significant minority of the American people.
Now, we’ll see. We’ll see. I believe that by us standing up and saying what we believe to be the case, not engaging in the — the overwhelming hyperbole that gets engaged in by so many today, that we — I guess that old expression, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
When we said — when I said I was going to deal with beating the virus and I was going to focus on that and I was going to get millions of shots in people’s arms, it wasn’t me — I just knew the American people. I knew the kind of help I’d get from the Defense Department, from police departments, from — from the hospitals, from — from retired docs, from — I just knew. And look how rapidly we moved.
Now, we have a group of people who were — everything from the political rejection of the notion of taking a vaccine, to people who were simply afraid of a needle and everything in between. And we have a way to go.
But I never doubted that we would be able to generate the kind of support we got and get so many millions of people step up and get vaccinated. So, I — I think it is a shock and surprise that what’s happened, in terms of the consequence of President Trump’s phony populism, has — has happened. And it is disappointing that so many of my Republican colleagues in the Senate, who I know know better, have been reluctant to take on, for example, an investigation because they’re worried about being primaried.
But, at the end of the day, we’ve been through periods like this in American history before where there has been this reluctance to take a chance on your reelection because of the nature of your party’s politics at the moment.
I think this is passing. I don’t mean easily passing. That’s why it’s so important that I succeed in my agenda — the agenda, whether it’s dealing with the vaccine, the economy, infrastructure. It’s important that we demonstrate we can make progress and continue to make progress. And I think we’re going to be able to do that.
So, as I said, the proof will be in where it is, you know, six months from now — where — where we are. But I think you’re going to see that there’s — that, God willing, we’re going to be making progress, and there’s going to be a coalescing of a lot of Republicans, particularly younger Republicans who are coming up in the party.
THE PRESIDENT: And last question, Sebastian Smith of AFP.
Q Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. Ukraine wants a clear “yes” or “no” on getting into the NATO Membership Action Plan. So, what’s your answer?
And, if I may, a second part to the same question: Well, now that Russia has invaded parts of Ukraine, does that effectively rule out Ukraine ever entering NATO, given that being in NATO would mean the U.S. and NATO having to defend Ukrainians against Russia?
THE PRESIDENT: The second question is — the answer is no.
The first question: It depends on whether they meet the criteria. The fact is they still have to clean up corruption. The fact is they have to meet other criteria to get into the Action Plan.
And so, it’s — you know, school is out on that question. It remains to be seen. In the meantime, we will do all that we can to pu- — put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression. And it will not just depend on me whether or not we conclude that — that Ukraine can become part of NATO; it will depend on the Alliance and how they vote.
But I know, for one thing, there has to be a co- — they have to convince, and it’s not easy. I made a speech, years ago, to the Rada saying that — that Ukraine had an opportunity to do something that’s never occurred in the history of Ukraine: actually generate a democratically elected and not corrupt — led by oligarchies in any of the regions — nation. And I pointed out to them when I made that speech that they will go down in history as the founding fathers of Ukraine if, in fact, they do that.
They have more to do. But that does not justify — the fact they have more to do — Russia taking aggressive action, either in the Donbas or in — on the sea, or in any part of Ukraine. And we’re going to put Ukraine in a position to be able to maintain their physical security.
Thank you all so very much. Sorry you’re all here so late. Thank you very much.
9:54 P.M. CEST