When President Joe Biden stated unequivocally Monday he was willing to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, it was not the first time this city has seen a US president catch his national security aides off guard.
It was in exactly the same gilt-trimmed room at the Akasaka Palace in 2019 that President Donald Trump told a news conference he was not “personally bothered” by North Korean short-range missile launches – a sentiment that awkwardly put him at odds with his host, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was standing three feet away and whose country lies within those weapons’ limits.
Each man’s comment caused ripples of surprise to cross the faces of his team seated nearby, including national security advisers and senior diplomats. Afterward, attempts were made by both men’s staffers to clarify.
Coming almost exactly three years apart, the two moments neatly highlight certain stylistic similarities between the current President and his predecessor.
Yet as Biden departs Asia after a visit darkened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the moments also expose the sometimes-dramatic steps the current President is willing to take to show the world that American obligations and leadership have outlasted Trump’s tenure.
If anything, Biden’s penchant for offering a more aggressive position than his government is willing to officially adopt reflects a desire to thoroughly erase the lingering memories of Trump, swinging the pendulum so far in another direction that allies are left with little doubt of his views – even as attempts by his team to explain them muddy things further.
Monday wasn’t the first time Biden has appeared to upend stated US policy. The last time he was abroad, he punctuated a visit to Poland by declaring Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” He accused Putin of being a war criminal and committing genocide before either were officially declared by the State Department.
Even his comment on Taiwan this week was not the first time of his presidency that Biden prompted a scramble to confirm the United States was not suddenly shifting its policy. It was the third.
Afterward, a White House official said US policy remained the same, and Biden himself told reporters a day later the American policy of strategic ambiguity remained in place.
Yet it was clear from Biden’s remarks that at least in the broader global environment, something has changed: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As he toured Asia this week, it was evident the calculus toward China has shifted as that war grinds ahead.
“The idea (Taiwan) can be taken by force – just taken by force – is just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so, it’s a burden that is even stronger,” the President said during his news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
It was a line that many presidents have toed and been criticized for before – including former President George W. Bush, who was subsequently criticized by then-Sen. Biden for using bellicose language during an interview in May 2001. Bush had said the US had an obligation to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China with “whatever it took” – including the full force of the American military.
At the time, Biden wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in regard to Bush, “But in this case, his inattention to detail has damaged U.S. credibility with our allies and sown confusion throughout the Pacific Rim. Words matter.”
Coming later in his presidency than he might have liked, Biden’s first trip to Asia since taking office seemed designed in many ways to distance himself from the norm-busting years of his predecessor.
In Seoul, he and the new President Yoon Suk Yeol said they would begin exploring an expansion of joint military drills between their two countries, exercises Trump scrapped because he believed they were too costly – and potentially provocative as he worked to bring Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table.
When he asked whether he would meet with Kim, Biden said the North Korean dictator would need to be “sincere and serious” – conditions Trump did not require the three times he and Kim met.
In Tokyo, Biden said he was considering easing tariffs on China put in place by his predecessor, making clear they weren’t his preference even as an internal debate roils over lifting them.
Even Biden’s answer on Taiwan offered a clear break from Trump’s reluctance to offer up US military support for partners and allies abroad, particularly when he was trying to cultivate a personal relationship with the potential aggressor.
If there is a pattern to Biden’s freelancing, it is a desire to put autocratic regimes on notice even when his government is trailing behind.
By contrast, when Trump made offhand remarks on foreign policy that surprised his team, it often broke a different direction: siding with Putin over his own intelligence agencies in Helsinki, for example, or stepping over the Korean line of demarcation for a photo opportunity with Kim.
Both prompted sometimes-frantic clean-up efforts. In public, Biden administration officials have been left to explain away the President’s declarations, which caused ire in Moscow and Beijing. And some foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have warned against escalation.
Yet Biden’s offhand comments – particularly on Russia’s war in Ukraine – caused only a small amount of consternation behind the scenes, people familiar with the matter said, and it mainly centered around getting ahead of legal processes. Biden, meanwhile, has said privately there is little time to waste in calling out Putin’s actions for what they clearly are.
Biden’s aides have said the President speaks from the heart and doesn’t hide his feelings, leading to some of his highest-profile ad-libs.
His statements that Putin is a war criminal and is committing genocide went well beyond the US government position – but aides did not view them as mistakes, but rather as Biden voicing urgency at the dire situation in Ukraine.
“He speaks from the heart. He says what he feels,” communications director Kate Bedingfield said after Biden declared in Warsaw that Putin “cannot remain in power,” a statement that at first prompted a clarifying statement attributed only to a White House official.
Those clean-up attempts have sometimes generated backlash of their own. Meant to clarify, they often seem to suggest – usually anonymously – that Biden didn’t mean what he clearly said. For a President whose aides often appear to be overly controlling in their handling of him, it can fuel the notion he’s not in command.
With that criticism in mind, when the President returned home from a European trip that featured multiple instances of his statements forcing clean up from his aides, it was determined Biden would address the comment himself.
Before emerging at the White House, however, his team printed out a notecard with exactly how he should answer a few specific questions about the remark: “I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward the action of this man,” it read. “I was not articulating a change in policy.”