US President Joe Biden answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, on January 19, 2022, in Washington, DC.
CNN  — 

At Wednesday’s press conference, President Joe Biden was asked a simple question. It was this: “Speaking of voting rights legislation, if this isn’t passed, do you still believe the upcoming election will be fairly conducted and its results will be legitimate?”

The easy answer – and the one Biden’s White House wishes he gave – goes something like this: “Yes, despite all of the Republicans’ attempts to limit who can vote and when, I ultimately have faith in the American political system’s ability to produce a free and fair election.”

He didn’t say that. What he did say has ignited a debate about whether Biden believes that the 2022 election could well be illegitimate – so much so that White House press secretary Jen Psaki was forced to clarify via tweet on Thursday morning: “Lets be clear: @potus was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election.”

In an attempt to clear all of this up, let’s go through what Biden actually said.

First, here’s what Biden said in response to that first question about whether the 2022 results will be legitimate:

“Well, it all depends on whether or not we’re able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election. … I think if, in fact – no matter how hard they make it for minorities to vote, I think you’re going to see them willing to stand in line and – and defy the attempt to keep them from being able to vote. I think you’re going to see the people who they’re trying to keep from being able to show up, showing up and making the sacrifice that needs to make in order to change the law back to what it should be.”

So, Biden appears to be answering two different questions here – neither of which are the one he was asked.

In the first part of his answer, he is suggesting that the legitimacy (or not) of the election is tied to his (and his party’s) ability to make the case to the public about the restrictive voting rights measures passed in the wake of the 2020 election in places like Florida and Georgia.

Then Biden pivots to say that, no matter what, minority voters will show up to vote in 2022, which has zero to do with the original question about whether the election might be illegitimate.

Because of the questions that first answer raised, another reporter follows up with Biden. Here’s that exchange:

Reporter: “A moment ago, you were asked whether or not you believed that we would have free and fair elections in 2022 if some of these state legislatures reformed their voting protocols. You said that it depends. Do you – do you think that they would in any way be illegitimate?”

Biden: “Oh, yeah, I think it easily could be – be illegitimate. Imagine – imagine if, in fact, Trump has succeeded in convincing Pence to not count the votes.”

Reporter: “In regard to 2022, sir – the midterm elections.”

Biden: “Oh, 2022. I mean, imagine if those attempts to say that the count was not legit. You have to recount it and we’re not going to count – we’re going to discard the following votes. I mean, sure, but – I’m not going to say it’s going to be legit. It’s – the increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these – these reforms passed.”

So, Biden is asked to clarify his view on 2022, but appears to misunderstand the question – answering instead about the possibility that the 2020 election could have been illegitimate. Biden’s line –“I think it easily could be – be illegitimate” – that is being quoted everywhere today is clearly a reference to 2020 as he follows it with “if…Trump had succeeded in convincing Pence to not count the votes.”

The reporter interjects to make sure Biden knows the question isn’t about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Biden course corrects – “Oh, 2022” – then gives what is, at best, a confusing answer. He uses an odd phrasing – “I’m not going to say it’s going to be legit” – and then directly links the legitimacy of the 2022 election to getting major voting reform legislation passed at the federal level. Legislation, it’s worth noting, that has no chance of passing before the 2022 election.

What, then, can we conclude? A few things:

1) Biden never said the 2022 election would be illegitimate. His quote about an election “easily” being illegitimate is quite clearly him referring to the 2020 race.

2) Biden never really answers the question he was asked in any sort of definitive way.

3) Biden ties passage of federal voting rights legislation to the likely legitimacy of the 2022 election.

In short: Biden was vague and unclear at just the wrong moment. As the former president of the United States seeks to undermine faith in American elections, the current occupant of the White House needs to affirm free and fairness of the vote in the most blunt terms possible. Biden didn’t come close to doing that on Wednesday.