My interview with the president

Biden: 'I have made very clear to the Israelis what they have to do in the near term. [And] if they don't, what's going to happen.'

About a week and a half ago, an unexpected email showed up in my inbox. Enclosed was an invitation to a reception on the periphery of the White House Correspondent’s Association dinner. This was odd, seeing as a) I’m not a White House correspondent and b) didn’t have any plans to attend the dinner. Then I looked at who had sent the invitation: It was from the White House Social Secretary. I was being invited to the White House itself.

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At first, I thought this must be some elaborate practical joke, or possibly a phishing scheme. (The RSVP required a Social Security number.) Once I’d decided it was real, I asked myself two questions: Why had I gotten this? And should I turn it down? It seemed weird to attend a celebration of journalism at the White House at a time when the U.S. government is bankrolling not only an ongoing genocide in Palestine, but enthusiastically backing an Israeli government that has killed more journalists in a matter of months than were killed in all of either World War II or Vietnam. Indeed, I’d learn after the fact that several of my industry colleagues did turn down tickets to the actual dinner on Saturday night. (Antiwar and pro-Palestine protesters heckled many of those who did attend.)

In the end, I decided to go. For one, it was because no one would know (or care) that I had gotten this invitation — to an event that, unlike the headline dinner, no one I talked to in Washington seemed to know was even happening. Which meant that turning the invitation down wouldn’t be much of a protest gesture, either to the White House or anyone else. But more importantly, by being in the room, I figured I might get a chance to ask the president a pertinent question or two about his role in the crisis — a chance I would be unlikely to get any other way. That is, assuming the president showed up.

I arrived at the White House gates on Alexander Hamilton Place on Friday afternoon. After multiple scans and ID checks, I found myself passing through East Garden Room and up the stairs, guided every few steps by a uniformed soldier or usher. Each chirped with equal parts hospitality and menace: “Welcome to the White House.”

I still had no idea why I was there. The early crowd gathering in the Entrance Hall, where a Marine Band string-and-piano quartet was playing cocktail music, offered a few hints. I recognized several TikTok stars — among them the impressionist Matt Friend (who was extremely tall) and V Spehar, the pompadoured creator of the ultra-liberal @underthedesknews. All of the young White House staffers chaperoning us were from some sort of influencer liaison office. This lent credence to my theory that my invitation had something to do with my viral TikTok fact-check of Sen. Katie Britt’s State of the Union response back in March.

(That would be highly ironic, given that our host had signed a bill banning TikTok days before. Though less ironic than the fact that Biden’s team is still furiously posting on the app.)

But the stream of more familiar faces that flowed into the Blue Room next only confused me more. A plurality were comedians. Fran Drescher walked in. So did Yvette Nicole Brown (Community), Diedrich Bader (Veep), and Jon Cryer (Hot Shots, Part Un). The closest to a fellow journalist I talked to was the Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper (who I can affirm is cool in person). Meanwhile, White House stewards circulated throughout the state rooms and onto the portico, carrying silver trays of wine, cake, and Chicken Satay.

Author’s photo

“This is surreal,” I said to the person next to me, who was David Cross.

“What is?” he replied.

“All of this. You know. We’re at the White House. You’re David Cross.”

I don’t know what, if anything, David Cross said in reply because at that instant a shudder and cheer ran through the room. I turned to see President Biden walking in. Instinctively, I pulled out my phone and hit record. (My camera happened to catch Hiroyuki Sanada, Lord Yoshii Toranaga on Shōgun, greeting the commander-in-chief with a keirei bow.)

Biden spoke for about five minutes, with the help of a microphone. He was, since I’m sure you’re wondering, lucid, warm, and judging by most of the crowd’s reactions, funny. He offered what he said was his Irish immigrant grandfather’s toast: “May those who love us, love us. And those who don’t, may God turn their ankles so we can see them coming by their limp.” He praised the celebrities’ “profound influence on public culture.” And he praised the press (represented by me, I guess?), paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson’s 1787 quote in which the lord of Monticello expressed a preference for “newspapers without a government” over a “government without newspapers.”[1]

“I really do think that an awful lot of people are looking out, wondering what's going on,” Biden said, speaking of the American people. His theme, familiar by now, was of the danger facing democracy. He noted the Supreme Court was currently “debating whether the president has absolute authority to do whatever else, including assassinating someone.” He invoked the Nazis who rioted in Charlottesville, in 2017, who he noted sang “the same antisemitic bile that was sung in the thirties in Germany and marching down, carrying torches” — only to be praised by his now-eternal opponent, Donald Trump.

Tellingly, though, Biden used these facts not as an argument for more democracy at home — support for the student protesters, for instance, some of whom were rallying just over a mile away at George Washington University — but for continued interventionism overseas. “What if we step back internationally?” he asked. “I mean literally, think about it. Who steps in?” (Someone standing near me answered: “Putin.”) “We have an enormous opportunity to change the dynamic in the world without war. Without war,” Biden concluded. Then he went back to praising the free press, saying he was counting on us — on all the people in the room — to “make sure that people get the truth.”

As soon as Biden finished talking I went up to him. I introduced myself as a member of the press, and noted that I live in Charlottesville — a reference to his comments a few minutes before. Then I asked him two questions. First I asked whether he stood by a statement he had made days earlier, in which he seemed to condemn the student anti-genocide protests on the whole as antisemitic. Then I asked why he had just signed a bill giving $26 billion more in military aid to Israel despite the mounting evidence that Israel is committing genocide.[2]

Biden simply ignored my question about the campus protests. (If I had to do it over, I’d have asked whether he agreed with Donald Trump’s claim that the campus antiwar, pro-Palestine, pro-divestment protests are “riots” that are worse than “Charlottesville.” Someone in the White House press corps might ask him that one.)

On the question of material support, though, he gave a more detailed answer. “The answer is twofold,” the president told me. “Number one, Israel's security from the region is essential. It's essential. That's fundamentally different than how Israel acts in Gaza. I've been, as you probably know, putting extreme pressure on the Israelis to back off and … open up humanitarian access in Gaza. And I think we’re getting close.”

“You basically proposed your own Gaza flotilla,” I responded, referring both to Biden’s plan to build a military pier at a new Israeli-constructed port in Gaza, and the humanitarian Gaza Freedom Flotilla that is currently stranded in Turkey after the tiny African nation of Guinea-Bissau, under whose flag the container ships were supposed to sail, intervened at the last minute to revoke permission. (A 2010 Freedom Flotilla ended in tragedy when Israeli commandos stormed the ship, killing nine activists.)

“Beyond that,” Biden corrected me. “And I’m pushing hard, and if they [Israel] are not going to volunteer to do it, we’re going to impose it.”

He then stepped away to greet some other attendees. A minute later, the president came back toward me. “I know you’re a typical press guy. You’re grabbing me in front of all this. And I trust you as far as I can throw your phone.” (I was visibly filming the whole interaction. I’ll post the video below.) He added: “I have a good arm, man. I can throw it a long way.” (Which may, come to think of it, mean he trusts me a lot? Though that also seems doubtful.)

Then he leaned forward, looking me dead in the eye with his intense pair of baby blues: “My point is this. I have made it very clear to the Israelis what they have to do in the near term. If they don’t, what’s going to happen.”

“What’s going to happen?” I asked.

“A lot,” he replied.

I tried to follow up — asking if the U.S. would cut off funding. But my brief interview was over. The president looked away. On cue, his aides ushered me to the edge of the oval room, where I could swear Fran Drescher was giving me side-eye.

Here’s my quick analysis of our exchange. First, my admittedly superficial impression was that Biden was all there, mentally. My experience was of talking to a seasoned, if old, politician, who deftly deflected an uncomfortable question, had a totally separate emotional interaction — one that happened to require remembering a face and an interaction he’d had decades ago — then came back over to me to hammer his point. If anything he was more intense and focused than I’d expected. I’m unsure if his ire was directed at me, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government, or all of the above. But there was no trace of the senility or dementia many assume have set in.

My more substantive take is that this was an in-the-flesh confirmation of the Biden who has come across in leaks and comments from aides, a Biden who is fed up with Israel’s shenanigans and this close to imposing some kind of consequence or other. And I have to say that I did feel that his perturbation with Israel was genuine — especially given his late Cold Warrior conviction, unevidenced of late, that Israel’s primacy in the Middle East is essential to American security.

But his avoidance of specifics spoke to the other side of that coin: the fact that there has been zero evidence of any serious consequences in the seven months of this ungodly war. So far the U.S. response to countless war crimes in Gaza has been to briefly threaten symbolic sanctions against individual Israeli units and officials, then reverse them immediately. And to allow a weakened ceasefire resolution to pass the U.N. Security Council, then pretend like the resolution doesn’t count.

All the while, Biden — personally annoyed or otherwise — has kept the bombs and billions flowing. Even as we spoke, his administration was reportedly working to stop the International Criminal Court (the criminal analog to the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, also in The Hague) from issuing warrants for Netanyahu and other Israeli officials’ arrest.

I’d have liked to follow up — on Gaza, Haiti, and more. What did Biden make clear to the Israelis that they have to do in the near term? What kind of consequences fall under the heading of “a lot?” (Again, good questions for the actual White House press corps to follow up on.) What we do know is this: Israel is still intensively bombing Rafah, killing dozens of people a day, even as U.S.-brokered talks proceed on a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Mass deaths from hunger could be imminent. And over 34,000 people are dead — probably many more, given that Gaza health officials under relentless assault have lost their ability to count.

Both the administration, and its Republican rivals, seem to know that Biden has a major problem with young voters — especially those who are keyed in on the slaughter in Gaza, and wars in general. Hence, I’d imagine, the wining-and-dining stars of a popular app he just banned, and his repetition of a promise to effect global change “without war.” But there are wars — wars his administration is arming and funding profligately; in one case the recipient being an embattled defender and in the other the primary aggressor. Yet instead of stopping those wars, as he laudably did in Afghanistan, the president is continuing to stand by provable war criminals, while lining up against student protesters in his own country who have the temerity and courage to demand substantive, institutional change. So while I appreciated the invitation, and the Chicken Satay, I’ll end with a suggestion for my host: Focus less on courting influencers, and more on rapidly fixing the policies now threatening to sink one of history’s most consequential re-election campaigns.

Photo by Matthew Friend


Watch to the end. Had a chance to ask President Biden some questions about Israel, Gaza, and the student protests today. So I did. #biden ... See more

1  He substituted “Constitution” for government and swapped newspapers with “free press.”

2  Specifically, I referred to the finding of the International Court of Justice that South Africa’s case against Israel for alleged violations of the U.N. Genocide Convention was “plausible.” On the same day as my visit to the White House, stories appeared about a BBC interview with the former chief judge of the ICJ, Joan Donoghue, in which she said that the court did not rule on the plausibility of the genocide claim itself, but rather whether “Palestinians had a plausible right to be protected from genocide and that South Africa had the right to present that claim in the court.” Israeli media have made much of this interview, in another attempt to discredit the claims that Israel is committing genocide.

A few things to note: a) Donoghue blamed the media for inaccurately reporting the findings, when in fact both U.N. officials and prominent international legal scholars also read the opinion as the court saying that the allegations of genocide per se were plausible. b) Donoghue is not only an American but a former State Department official who has defended the U.S. in losing cases against human rights abuses in the past, and who, having resigned, no longer speaks for the ICJ. c) On March 28, after Donoghue left the court, the ICJ issued a second order against Israel in the case, in which the court found that the situation in Gaza had become “exceptionally grave” even compared with its first ruling. It also reiterated and amplified its order that Israel was required to take, with “immediate effect,” actions to ensure its military did not violate the rights of Palestinians in Gaza as protected by the Genocide Convention. The ICJ is expected to take years to come to a final ruling in the case.

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