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When US President Joe Biden labeled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “genocide” during an address on energy prices in Iowa, it set off a now-familiar scramble among White House aides to contain diplomatically loaded presidential rhetoric threatening to go beyond official US policy.

Senior officials huddled with Biden after his speech Tuesday to discuss the comment, a dramatic reversal less than two weeks after his administration had specifically declined to endorse Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s use of the term.

After the discussion, Biden strode over to reporters waiting under the wing of Air Force One to say that the remark was indeed intentional — but also acknowledge that lawyers at the State Department might feel differently.

“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualified, but it sure seems that way to me,” Biden said of Russia’s military campaign to force Ukraine under its control.

It was the third time Biden appeared to get over his skis in describing the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin — or finding himself explaining that no matter what he said, US policy wasn’t changing.

Late last month in Warsaw, he declared that Putin “cannot remain in power” after the war in Ukraine ends.

Aides claimed Biden was saying that Putin should not be able to continue to wield power over Ukraine, and not advocating regime change in Russia, which would be counter to long-standing US official policy. But their efforts did little to source coverage of the aside, which dominated media accounts of his address.

Two days later, Biden told reporters he had intended to express “moral outrage” over Putin, that the Russian president “shouldn’t remain in power” and he had not intended to convey a policy shift.

Earlier this month, the president told reporters that he believed Putin was a “war criminal” — even after other US officials said they were intentionally sidestepping questions on the issue, citing ongoing investigations.

Biden’s quick clarification on Tuesday was an indication that the White House had adopted a new strategy in dealing with these remarks.

By declaring almost immediately that he intended to make the comment, the president largely quelled concerns he had missedpoken. By specifically divorcing his comments from US policy, other administration officials weren’t wed to his determination.

And Biden has seen that while his invocation of dire rhetoric may give heartburn to attorneys at the State Department who agonize for years over such declarations, it has few practical consequences.

A genocide declaration, for instance, does not obligate the US to take any particular actions under international law. That situation played out recently with China: The US claim that Beijing was committing genocide against the Uyghurs was diplomatically provocative, but had little material impact on US-China relations.

And the comments don’t hurt him politically.

A Rasmussen poll taken after Biden’s call for Putin’s removal from power found that 70% of likely voters agreed with the comment, while fewer than a quarter disagreed. The number of Americans who described Russia as an enemy jumped from 41% in January to 70% in late March, according to a survey by Pew Research.

The Kremlin also uses such remarks for political advantage, painting the US and its allies as instigators threatening Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Biden’s “war criminal” label “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric,” and followed Tuesday’s “genocide” remark with a statement calling it an “unacceptable distortion.”

Still, even as Biden has largely avoided short-term political consequences for his rhetoric, there could be long-term implications for his actions.

US presidents have avoided evoking genocide out of fear of eroding the word’s meaning — seeking to reserve the classification for only the most heinous of actions. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced at the US Holocaust Museum that Myanmar finally has been added to the official US list, years after the world condemned its actions in 2016 and 2017. Blinken stressed the rarity of such a determination, as well as the lengthy legal analysis prepared by his department.

“Beyond the Holocaust, the United States has concluded that genocide was committed seven times. Today marks the eighth,” Blinken said.

A genocide declaration could also amplify calls for a US military intervention. Clinton administration officials were specifically ordered to avoid describing the mass killings in Rwanda as genocide to avoid provoking calls for American involvement in the conflict.

Biden has steadfastly predicted the deployment of US troops in Ukraine, saying repeatedly that doing so would risk direct confrontation with the Russian military and the possibility of World War III. But by using the word genocide — coined by a Polish lawyer who lost dozens of members of his family to the Nazi-led extermination of European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s — Biden is evoking the specter of the last worldwide conflict.

European leaders have stopped so far short of declaring Russia’s actions as genocidal, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson allowing only that Russian attacks in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha did not “look far short of genocide.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday he was “very careful” with such terms and was “not sure the escalation of words is helping the cause right now.”

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