Woodrow Wilson in Europe for the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Richard Nixon in China. Barack Obama in Cuba. Donald Trump in North Korea. Many U.S. presidents have engaged in landmark meetings with foreign powers – friends and foes alike. The world is typically captivated whenever American leaders meet face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The media often compares the bout as a matchup between Rocky Balboa and Drago. What about Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with Putin since he became president? In the aftermath of the much-anticipated summit, did the mainstream media give Biden a knockout victory over his Russian counterpart, or did the Fourth Estate give up trying to make him a heroic champion taking on the Kremlin?
The Handshake Seen Around the World
CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto set the stage for how the establishment press would cover the high-stakes Biden-Putin summit in Geneva. According to Sciutto, a handshake between the world leaders highlighted a “notable” projection of strength for the U.S. president. He wrote on Twitter:
“The handshake, Biden looked Putin in the eye with a smile. Putin looked away. Again, you don’t want to read too much or too little. Again, these are about public posturing, it’s about how you project strength, and that was a notable moment to me.”
“Biden looked Putin in the eyes, Putin immediately looked away,” he added, sharing similar thoughts on the cable news network’s live broadcast with Wolf Blitzer.
But was it a simple case of Putin acknowledging the cameras and Biden grinning? Sciutto should know better than the average person since he worked in the Obama administration as chief of staff and senior advisor to Ambassador Gary Locke.
A Testy Exchange with Pre-Approved Reporters
Biden hosted a post-summit debriefing with reporters. He confirmed that he would take questions from a list of pre-approved people, a policy that has become accepted without much resistance.
Toward the end of the media event, the president got into a testy exchange with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins when she asked Biden as he was walking off stage, “Why are you so confident he’ll change his behavior, Mr. President?” A perturbed Biden responded, wagging his right index finger:
“I’m not confident. Where the hell — what do you do all the time?
When did I say I was confident? What I said was — let’s get it straight — I said what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them, and it diminishes their standing in the world.”
President Biden later apologized for the confrontation and being a “wise guy.” Collins replied on-air to the apology, saying it was unnecessary because “I was only doing my job.” But Biden was ostensibly getting irked by other members of the press, too. He griped about their reporting style, telling one journalist before he boarded Air Force One that “you never ask a positive question.”
Still, CNN was unfazed by the tense verbal altercation. Blitzer was pleased that Biden spent “quality time” talking to the media. Jeff Zeleny called it “classic Joe Biden,” explaining that the president recognized “he had a job to do.” Overall, Blitzer, Sciutto, Zeleny, and Clarissa Ward celebrated how “comfortable Biden was in that moment, taking off his jacket, answering these questions.”
Bipartisan Disapproval on Cybersecurity
Biden revealed that he spoke extensively with Putin on cybersecurity, noting that he provided his counterpart with 16 specific items “defined as critical infrastructure under U.S. policy” that “should be off-limits to attack.” This ignited widespread disagreement across the political spectrum, with the punditry class from the left and right noting that this gives Moscow an invitation to attack everything else. National Review Senior Writer David Harsanyi summarized the measure: “Biggest loser today: the 17th most critical infrastructure entity in America.”
Hillary Clinton Still Upset Over 2016
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to provide her thoughts on the Biden-Putin summit. Clinton outlined the subjects that she confronted Putin with, interjecting her analysis with “Putin made it his mission to deny me the presidency.” Five years later, she has still not gotten over her historic loss?
A More Hands-Off Approach?
Did the president’s handlers attach a longer leash to him during this European adventure?
If so, the public relations fallout might justify why the administration continues to limit his interactions with the press and ensure he is shielded from tough questions that might undermine his agenda. In the early days of the Biden era, it is clear that journalists are not as combative as they were when reporting on former President Donald Trump and his foreign trips. But they still need to present a modicum of objectivity and journalistic integrity to maintain a level of trust and support from the American people, even if it is already near all-time lows.
At the same time, considering how enchanted CNN was by Biden, who had scolded one of its reporters, the media wing of the White House can be confident that the press will refrain from participating in over-the-top reportage as it did during the previous administration. Is this the beginning of allowing Biden more freedom to engage with the Fourth Estate? Or will staff in the Oval Office keep him on a short rope? Should Biden keep informing everyone that he “will get in trouble” with his staff if he takes unapproved questions, the public will have its answer.