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Is our press corp learning? The gaffe edition

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I find it difficult to name a single defining characteristic of the Trump presidency. It was, after all, a nonstop parade of terrible. If pressed to choose, though, I’d probably mention the soul-crushing knowledge that – at least for those of us in the United States – each morning would bring with it a new unhinged utterance.

Would Trump demagogue a vulnerable minority group? Would he direct the anger of his most rabid followers at a career civil servant? Would he retweet a Nazi? Would Trump suggest that the U.S. was going to withdraw from NATO, threaten to bomb a nuclear power, praise a dictator, or speak favorably about Russian aggression?

You never knew what, exactly, your friends in Europe would be emailing you about. But you knew they’d be emailing you about something,

It was hardly the most evil aspect of the Trump administration, but it was the most omnipresent.

One might think that, after four years of genuinely whacked out – and often dangerous – statements by the President of the United States, people who don’t live in the right-wing media bubble would develop a sense of perspective. They might even finally learn to tell the difference between serious missteps and largely ginned up controversies.

But that’s like expecting reporters to ask any Republican who whines about “divisive statements” or “unpresidential speeches” how they manage to avoid exploding under the pressure of that much hypocrisy.

Case in point: yesterday Biden said the following:

Number two, we’re in a situation where Vladimir Putin is about to — we’ve had very frank discussions, Vladimir Putin and I. And the idea that NATO is not going to be united, I don’t buy. I’ve spoken to every major NATO leader. We’ve had the NATO-Russian summit. We’ve had other — the OSCE has met, et cetera.

And so, I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.

But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further ingra- — invade Ukraine, and that our allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy.

And, you know, we’re going to fortify our NATO Allies, I told him, on the eastern flank — if, in fact, he does invade. We’re going to — I’ve already shipped over $600 million worth of sophisticated equipment, defensive equipment to the Ukrainians.

The cost of going into Ukraine, in terms of physical loss of life, for the Russians, they’ll — they’ll be able to prevail over time, but it’s going to be heavy, it’s going to be real, and it’s going to be consequential.

In addition to that, Putin has — you know, has a stark choice: He — either de-escalation or diplomacy; confrontation or the consequences.

Now, I’m not surprised if the Ukrainian government – which, for obvious reasons, is on edge right now – got upset about the statement. This is the kind of diplomatic friction that goes away after, at most, a few phone calls. We might even question whether Biden should be so forthright about the difficulties that NATO might have if the Russians stuck to a limited display of force.

However, it’s just bad faith to claim that Biden implied the U.S. wouldn’t respond forcefully to a Russian attack on Ukraine or that he described “a potential invasion of Ukraine” as a “minor incursion.” It’s ridiculous to act like Biden said anything that the Russian government isn’t already very much aware of.

There’s another way in which the Trump administration should’ve given American commentators some perspective on foreign policy “gaffes.” Yes, it’s possible – as Trump did – to threaten your way into a nuclear crisis.* Yes, rhetoric does matter, and Trump did a lot of damage through words rather than deeds. But it turns out the U.S. president can say an awful lot of stupid shit without causing alliances to disintegrate or states to go to war. Biden’s “gaffe” isn’t even in the same multiverse.

*A process that involved much more than insults on Twitter.

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