The White House announced that following his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Joe Biden will hold a solo press conference instead of the traditional media appearance by both leaders.
“We expect this meeting to be candid and straightforward, and a solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting,” a U.S. official said in a statement sent to reporters, “both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns.”
One of the more significant issues that Biden wants to raise is Putin’s human rights record, specifically the poisoning of his enemies and the state’s crackdown on free speech. Of particular concern is the status of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny who is languishing in a Russian prison.
A spokesman for Putin claims that the Navalny issue will not be raised, but Biden press secretary Jen Psaki says differently.
“It may not be on his agenda, and that’s not a surprise, but certainly the president has every intention to raise human rights abuses, the jailing of dissidents and activists, which is a violation of what we feel should be norms around the world,” she told Jake Tapper.
Putin may be eager to show up Biden before the world press, but the White House says it has its own reasons for not wanting a joint appearance.
Top aides to Mr. Biden said that during negotiations over the meetings, to be held at an 18th-century Swiss villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, the Russian government was eager to have Mr. Putin join Mr. Biden in a news conference. But Biden administration officials said that they were mindful of how Mr. Putin seemed to get the better of Mr. Trump in Helsinki.
At that news conference, Mr. Trump publicly accepted Mr. Putin’s assurances that his government did not interfere with the 2016 election, taking the Russian president’s word rather than the assessments of his own intelligence officials.
Trump never did believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. It would depend on how one defines “interfered,” but Russian government disinformation was inundating social media. Known Russian operatives were behind the effort and it’s a good bet the Kremlin knew exactly what was going on.
Nevertheless, Biden is supposed to be able to run rings around Putin and put him on the spot — at least, that’s what we’re told. More likely, there are mutually beneficial reasons why both leaders want to avoid appearing together.
Putin doesn’t want any uncomfortable questions from Western reporters about Navalny and human rights in Russia and Biden doesn’t want to have to say nice things about Putin when he’s standing right next to him. Biden, for his part, is rumored to hate Putin personally and finds interacting with him distasteful.
But not having a joint press appearance could easily lead to charges of a “failed” summit, something Biden would dearly love to avoid. He may not be able to. Biden will be on the spot at the press conference to deliver and demonstrate that he has the energy and wits to go toe to toe with Putin.
That may be too much to ask.