The White House went to work on cleanup duty Thursday after President Biden’s press conference remarks rattled both sides of the Atlantic by questioning the legitimacy of U.S. elections and the West’s resolve against Russian aggression.
White House officials said Mr. Biden’s comments were misinterpreted and offered clarifications that differed widely from what the president had said.
Mr. Biden is known for making gaffes, but his miscues at the press conference Wednesday cut to the heart of the U.S. democratic process and his foreign policy. It also belied Mr. Biden’s mantra that “the words of a president matter.”
“I can assure you allies and partners know exactly what the president’s position is,” she said. “They knew what it was yesterday, they knew during the press conference, they knew after the press conference because we have been engaged closely and working in lockstep with them for weeks on the rising military incursion or threat posed by Russia.”
Ronald Rowland, who teaches presidential rhetoric at the University of Kansas, called the comments about Ukraine a “serious gaffe.”
“Getting the details right on foreign policy when potential deterrence is the issue is important,” he said. “Joe Biden is a skillful, empathetic speaker, but gaffes have been relatively common.”
Mr. Biden and Ms. Psaki had to shift into overdrive to get the message back on track.
The White House issued a clarification moments after the conclusion of the nearly two-hour press conference, which was Mr. Biden’s second solo press conference after a year in office.
At the press conference in the East Room of the White House, the president shocked the world by saying a “minor incursion” into Ukraine by Russia would result in lesser consequences. He also impugned the U.S. democratic process by saying the elections “easily could be illegitimate” without enacting the Democrats’ voting bills, which died in the Senate on Wednesday night.
Ms. Psaki issued a second statement clarifying Mr. Biden’s remarks and made a rare appearance on Fox News to spell out the president’s positions.
Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, posted a tweet emphasizing that Mr. Biden was distinguishing between military and nonmilitary actions such as a cyberattack.
Mr. Biden took time away from an unrelated event at the White House to assure allies that he wouldn’t allow a “minor incursion.”
“I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin,” Mr. Biden told reporters. “He has no misunderstanding. If any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.
“Let there be no doubt at all that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price,” said Mr. Biden, noting there was also the potential for a cyberattack or paramilitary action by Russia that would require a coordinated response from the U.S. and its allies.
Still, Mr. Biden’s statements caused consternation from Washington to Kyiv.
“I was stunned at what the president said,” Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, said in an interview. “I was shocked that he would send that kind of message to Vladimir Putin.”
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said in a tweet that he was worried it caused confusion ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with his Russian counterpart in Geneva this week to discuss the Ukraine crisis.
“I am very concerned by the weak, incoherent message we just heard from [Mr. Biden] on Ukraine,” said Mr. Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Democrats mostly stayed mum. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York Democrat, told The Times that he hadn’t followed the president’s remarks because he was focused on voting legislation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a scolding reply to Mr. Biden.
“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” Mr. Zelenskyy said on Twitter. “Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from loved ones. I say this as the president of a great power.”
European leaders who joined the White House on mop-up duty trying to show a united front included British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen.
“Be in no doubt that if Russia were to make any kind of incursion into Ukraine, or on any scale whatever, I think that that would be a disaster, not just for Ukraine but for Russia. It would be a disaster for the world,” Mr. Johnson told reporters in London.
Ms. Psaki also went to work trying to fix Mr. Biden’s comments about the U.S. elections.
“He absolutely is not predicting that the 2022 elections would be illegitimate,” Ms. Psaki said, adding the clarification that elections would be illegitimate only if states act as President Trump demanded after the 2020 vote.
“The point he was making was that the former president asked a number of states — seven or more, in fact — to overturn the outcome of an election. Now, obviously, if there is an effort to do that, we’ve got to fight against that. That’s what our commitment is to doing,” she said on Fox News. “He was not making a prediction. He has confidence in the American people.”
The president’s Democratic allies nevertheless attempted to distance themselves from Mr. Biden’s rhetoric.
“I hope not,” House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said when asked whether the president’s comments cast doubt on the election. “The public’s trust in elections is critically important.”
• David R. Sands contributed to this report.