Wednesday’s White House press briefing wasn’t smooth sailing for Press Secretary Jen Psaki and deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh with tough questions ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So it was only natural they came back Thursday and faced hardballs on Biden’s messaging flip-flop on use of sanctions and the refusal to apply them at all to the Russian energy industry (perhaps its number one asset).
Just as she did hours earlier with President Biden, ABC’s Cecilia Vega chose to actually hold the administration’s feet to the fire, first asking Singh: “If Putin takes Kyiv, does that trigger additional sanctions, specifically that scenario?”
After Singh said he wasn’t “going to speculate on particular hypotheticals,” Vega sought clarification on Biden’s implication that we should all wait a month to see how the sanctions affect Russia: “What happens in the meantime? Russia is taking over parts of Ukraine — major parts of Ukraine as we speak, so the world just sits back and watches that happen until these sanctions take effect?”
Singh largely ducked her question other than to say, in lengthy response (along with signs to look for in the Russian economy), “we can’t dictate Putin’s actions,” so “[w]hat we can do is what’s within our control and to make sure this is going to be a strategic failure for Russia.”
CBS’s Weijia Jiang used her two questions to further expose the significance of Biden downplaying the level of deterrence sanctions provide after he and his team spent weeks saying the opposite (click “expand”):
JIANG: For weeks now, administration officials repeatedly said, yourself included, that these sanctions are meant to deter and prevent Putin from moving forward — from acting. Can you help us understand why the President said today that no one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening? And then a secondly — a quick one on Putin sanctions, without talking about when you might trigger them, can you help us understand what harm they would do to him personally if you were to sanction Putin?
SINGH: Look, on your first question, we don't usually engage in hypotheticals up here at this podium, but let's play this out. Had we unleashed our entire package of financial sanctions primitively, I think a couple of things might have happened. Number one, President Putin might have said, look, people are not serious about diplomacy...Secondly, he could look at it as a sunk cost. In other words, President Putin could think, “I’ve already paid the price. Why don't I take what I paid for, which is Ukraine's freedom?” So, that’s — that’s what we wanted to avoid. Look, ultimately — ultimately the goal of our sanctions is to make this a strategic failure for Russia...Strategy success in the 21st century is not about a physical landgrab of territory. That is what Putin has done. In this century, strategic power is increasingly measured and exercised by economic strength, by technological sophistication, and your story, who you are, what your values are. Can you attract ideas and talent and goodwill? On each of those measures this will be a failure for Russia.
JIANG: But is it fair to say no one expected the sanctions to prevent anything? You certainly expected that, right?
SINGH: Look, we — we signaled as clearly as we could what was coming if Russia proceeded with an invasion. You know, as I mentioned before, economic costs of this severity generally matter to any leader because of the effect it has on — on his people's living standards. In this case Putin made the wrong choice.
A fairly reliable straight-shooter, Reuters’s Steve Holland got Singh to offer an all-but definitive answer on how Russia’s biggest export won’t be touched:
HOLLAND: The targeting the Russian energy industry is totally off the table? Is that what you are saying, Daleep?
SINGH: What I’m saying is that our measures were not designed to disrupt — in any way — the current flow of energy from Russia to the world. Now, we have also said we are going to cut off Russia's access to cutting-edge technology. That technology can be used across many sectors.
Skipping ahead to Psaki’s portion, Fox’s Peter Doocy also pressed on energy, wondering whether Biden would alter his energy policies to allow for greater domestic production and if the President “would...ever consider ordering U.S. companies to stop importing Russian oil.”
Not surprisingly, Psaki emphasized he’s not changing his mind (click “expand”):
DOOCY: There’s this talk about a possible forecast for financial pain, particularly at the gas pump —
DOOCY: — for Americans. The President said today the notion that this is going to last for a long time is unlikely. Would he try to ensure that by lifting some of the restrictions that he’s put in place on the energy industry, or rethinking some projects like the Keystone pipeline?
PSAKI: Well, first of all, the Keystone pipeline is not flowing, so I'm not sure how that would solve anything. There’s plenty of oil leases not being tapped into by oil companies, so you should talk to them about that and why. But what the President’s talking about is we certainly understand — and he said this today — right — maybe in response to your question, I don’t remember — but if there’s an invasion of another country by a big country, there’s going to be impacts on the markets, right? And we certainly anticipated and we anticipate that as it relates to the global oil market as well, so that’s why the President, for weeks now, has been engaging with a range of big global suppliers — some in the Middle East, others — to see what we can do to ensure there’s supply out there in the market to reduce the impact on the American people.
DOOCY: And the U.S. is one of the Russian oil industry's best customers, hundreds of thousands in barrels per day. Would the President ever consider ordering U.S. companies to stop importing Russian oil?
PSAKI: I don't have any prediction of that at this point, Peter. We announced some significant sentience today. Our objective is to — to ensure there is the greatest economic pain on Russia — not on the Russian people, but on President Putin, and to minimize the impacts on American people, including companies here in the United States.
Before his energy questions, however, Doocy asked whether Biden would “send U.S. troops in on a rescue mission” to save Ukrainian President Zelensky if he’s “in danger of being killed or captured and put on some sort of a show trial.”
Of course, Psaki declined to comment.
As Psaki sought to leave the room, she stopped to answer questions from the New York Post’s Steven Nelson and former Playboy writer and carnival barker Brian Karem on whether the administration believes Putin would invade other former Soviet satellite nations beyond Ukraine.
Psaki told them that she wouldn’t “make a prediction,” but there’s reason to believe Putin “has grander ambitions in Ukraine, hence the military campaign is continuing.”
To see the relevant transcript from the February 24 briefing (including questions from NPR’s Franco Ordoñez about exempting oil companies and The New York Times’s Zolan Kanno-Youngs on Biden’s Freudian slip), click here.