NBC’s Peter Alexander grills Psaki: ‘If Putin is a war criminal, why should he be allowed to stay in power?’

Less than two weeks ago, President Joe Biden stepped in it big time when he uttered these memorable words during a speech in Warsaw, Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

The man he was referring to is Vladimir Putin, and these remarks touched off a flurry of speculation that regime change in Russia was now official United States policy. Advocating for the removal of the sitting head of state in a large, nuclear-armed country is no small thing; if it was official U.S. policy, it would naturally be tantamount to a declaration of war against Russia, and potentially involve every country that falls within NATO’s ambit in what could fairly be described as World War III.

So it’s no surprise that the White House immediately went into full-blown “CYA” mode and walked that one right back to the starting line.

“The President’s point,” a White House official clarified shortly after the incident, “was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”

But that was then, and this is now.

In the wake of reports of horrific atrocities and war crimes committed by Russian forces at Bucha, Mariupol, and elsewhere in beleaguered Ukraine, some reporters are asking the White House if it shouldn’t perhaps revisit and revise its categorical disavowal of a regime change policy. During a Tuesday press briefing, NBC News’ White House correspondent Peter Alexander repeatedly pressed White House press secretary Jen Psaki on why the United States hasn’t adopted a policy calling for Putin’s ouster.

“So, given these awful videos and pictures we’re seeing of the atrocities that took place in Bucha right now,” Alexander said during the conference, “is the U.S. policy still one of no regime change in Russia? And if so, why should someone like Vladimir Putin be viewed by the U.S. as someone who should be allowed to stay in power?”

True to form, Psaki reiterated the White House’s position: “Well, I think our policy is: no, we are not calling for regime change. And that has not been our policy and continues not to be our policy. But again, Peter, our view is that [Putin] is a war criminal, and he is somebody who should be looked at by the international system who evaluates war crimes.”

Psaki’s response naturally begged Alexander’s follow-up question: “I guess the question—people say, ‘Then why not? If he’s a war criminal, why should he be allowed to stay in power?'”

It’s a sensible question, given past U.S. foreign policy directed at leaders who were declared war criminals—including the likes of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. In this case, all Psaki could do was repeat that although Putin has “committed atrocities” and is a “pariah in the world,” it is not United States policy to call for regime change.

Another reporter, Steven Portnoy of CBS News Radio, went even further.

“Why shouldn’t the images from the atrocities from Bucha compel a worldwide unified coalition kinetic response?” he asked.

“You mean a military war?” Psaki countered.

But Portnoy wasn’t to be put off that easily. “Sure,” he rejoined, “a military response led by the United States and the international partners.”

Psaki stuck to her talking points: “It is not in our interests or in the interests of the American people for us to be in a war with Russia.”

So that’s the White House’s story, and—for the time being, at least—it’s sticking to it.


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Todd Jaquith


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