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Biden went off script to denounce Putin in Poland speech

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

President Biden is back in Washington today after a week of diplomacy in Europe aimed at shoring up opposition to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. But during a speech yesterday, he said something that could overshadow the whole trip. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith was there.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Biden was at the Royal Castle in Warsaw with American and Polish flags behind him. An audience of nearly a thousand people was watching and cheering, some of them refugees who fled their homes in Ukraine as Russian forces invaded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase the people's love for liberty.

KEITH: Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, Biden shouted, as if to will it into being.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We will have a different future, a brighter future, rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibilities. For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.

KEITH: A source familiar with the president's prepared remarks tells NPR that line wasn't in the speech as written. A White House official quickly clarified that Biden wasn't talking about regime change. But that's not what people heard.

HEATHER CONLEY: For people that just literally tuning in to what he said, it was really sending some shockwaves.

KEITH: Heather Conley is president of the German Marshall Fund. And her phone immediately started blowing up with texts. She says the very allies President Biden has spent this trip working to keep united are going to have questions about what his words mean for U.S. policy. Right up to that point, Conley says it had been a successful trip.

CONLEY: That was such a big and loaded closing remark to this trip that I think, in many ways, it overshadows some of the many good things that came out of it.

KEITH: Biden's address capped off a carefully managed trip that started with a series of meetings in Brussels with allies from NATO, the G7 and the European Union. There were new commitments to support Ukraine with weapons and humanitarian assistance and new sanctions to amp up the economic pain on Russia. Then at an airfield in Rzeszow, Poland, just 60 miles from the border with Ukraine, Biden thanked troops from the 82nd Airborne Division for their work coordinating deliveries of aid to Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: What you're doing is consequential, really consequential.

KEITH: The White House got an indelible image when the president sat shoulder to shoulder with troops at a makeshift mess hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Well, if you're starting to eat, I'm going to sit and have something to eat. Is that all right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, sir.

KEITH: Pepperoni and jalapeno pizza was on the menu. In Warsaw yesterday, Biden saw firsthand the human toll of the war - meeting with Ukrainian refugees at a stadium where people who've given up almost everything come for help piecing their lives back together.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They were stuck in the basement for the longest time since the war began.

KEITH: Communicating with the help of an interpreter, Biden at one point picked up a young girl in a pink coat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: (Groaning) So big. You're all brave, brave, brave.

KEITH: This experience still fresh in his mind, Biden delivered final remarks at the Royal Castle. His impassioned message was that the allies must steel themselves for a protracted fight. The democracies of the world, the defenders of freedom, are in a generational battle, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come. It will not be easy. There will be cost, but it's a price we have to pay.

KEITH: As Biden was preparing to board Air Force One to return to Washington, reporters shouted questions about whether he really wanted Putin removed from office. Biden just kept walking.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Warsaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.