President Joe Biden had one single and simple goal at his press conference in the wake of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva: Project absolute and utter normality.
Did Biden engage in any threats? No, he said.
Was there hyperbole on either side? No, he said.
Did Biden revisit his past comment that Putin was a “killer?” No comment, Biden said.
“I did what I came to do,” Biden offered at one point, a succinct, if vague, assertion of success.
While Biden didn’t seek to fully explain what it was he came to do, the evidence was everywhere in his answers: Make clear that the traveling circus of the Trump presidency was over – and that the adults were back in charge.
(Biden’s cool demeanor broke only once – under questioning from CNN’s Kaitlan Collins about whether the President truly expected Putin to change his behavior. “I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior,” Biden replied testily. “Where the hell – what do you do all the time. When did I say I was confident?” He later apologized to Collins, saying he “shouldn’t have been such a wise guy.”)
He repeatedly dodged questions about his personal relationship (or lack thereof) with Putin and past – and present – comments the two men had made about each other. Time after time, Biden steered the conversation away from personalities and toward realpolitik.
“This is not about trust,” Biden said when asked whether he trusted Putin. “This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”
Even in Biden’s tone, he appeared to be making a concerted effort to be dispassionate – rarely showing off the animation that he regularly displays when jousting with the American press corps stateside. He was also far briefer in his remarks (and the questions he took after them) than Putin who held court for the better part of an hour in the immediate wake of the world leaders’ meeting.
While Biden never mentioned his presidential predecessor, the 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland, between Trump and Putin hung over the proceedings like a stale fart – with both sides utterly aware of it but neither willing to acknowledge it directly.
That meeting, widely considered in American foreign policy circles as a disaster for both Trump and the United States, was a wild and rollicking affair. Putin and Trump held a joint press conference after their talks where the then-American President openly undermined his intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference in the 2016 election, peacocked about his own Electoral College victory and floated a wild conspiracy theory about a missing Democratic National Committee server.
This time around the Biden White House rejected the idea of a joint press conference. They let Putin go first with his own presser in order to be able to respond fully to any and all claims that the Russian president made about the meeting. And they went out of their way to avoid anything – whether in word or action – that could be read by any neutral observer as meaningless frivolity.
Nuts and bolts. Pragmatism over pomp. Total frankness over Trumpism.
Or, in Biden’s words: “This is about how we move from here. This is – I listened to, again, a significant portion of what President Putin’s press conference was – and as he pointed out, this is about practical, straightforward, no-nonsense decisions that we have to make or not make.
“We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”