Why Biden decided to speak out about the campus protests after days of silence

WASHINGTON — After days of silence from President Joe Biden about the eruption of pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses nationwide, his decision to speak out Thursday was an acknowledgment that it was unavoidable to stay quiet for much longer, according to three people familiar with the decision, while Americans were seeing nonstop images of students clashing with law enforcement.

Biden didn’t offer anything new about the White House’s position on the unrest. He forcefully condemned violent behavior while imploring those demonstrating to keep their actions peaceful and lawful.

“We’ve all seen the images,” Biden said, referring to standoffs at UCLA and Columbia University that had escalated in the previous 24 hours after police removed and arrested hundreds of protesters from encampments.

“There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos,” Biden added. He delivered the remarks just before he left for a day trip to North Carolina, where aides expected he would be peppered with questions on the protests.

On Wednesday night, after a campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Biden asked his advisers to develop remarks he might deliver should he decide to speak, two sources familiar with the planning said, and he then reworked the draft.

The New York Police Department’s decision Tuesday night to clear Hamilton Hall at Columbia University and arrest nearly 100 people was part of the calculation to speak out, as was the violence among different groups of protesters, the person added.

But it wasn’t until Thursday morning — just hours after police officers arrested hundreds of protesters while they were clearing the encampment at UCLA — that he decided he wanted to deliver the remarks.

Biden delivered the comments, which lasted about four minutes, after several of his Democratic allies urged him to do so and after former President Donald Trump ramped up his criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the turmoil.

A White House official, referring to the outside pressure, described the decision for Biden to speak Thursday as “we answered the mail.” Biden’s team is focusing heavily on a speech he’s set to deliver next week at a Holocaust Memorial Ceremony about antisemitism, the official said.

Biden said Thursday: “In moments like this, there are always those who rush in to score political points. But this isn’t a moment for politics. It’s a moment for clarity.”

On whether Trump’s comments prompted Biden’s statement, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters: “It has nothing to do with anybody following anyone’s lead. The president, if anything, has been a leader on this.”

For most of the last week, Biden allowed his top aides and surrogates, such as second gentleman Doug Emhoff, to take the lead on messaging about the growing protests. The White House released several statements condemning any violent or antisemitic rhetoric, clearly stating that “forcibly” taking over any kind of building is “wrong.”

Biden’s remarks Thursday were his first formal statement about the tensions at 40 schools around the country. So far, more than 2,100 arrests have been connected to the protests, according to an NBC News tally.

Some Democrats are looking at what is happening on campuses and noting that the Democratic National Convention in Chicago is mere months away and that it could be a place for some of the energy and anger from the protests to continue to play out this summer.

Asked Thursday whether the demonstrations have forced him to reconsider any U.S. policy in the Middle East, Biden simply said: No.

For months, his national security team has been pursuing a cease-fire deal that would release up to 33 hostages still being held by Hamas in exchange for a six-week pause in the fighting. Negotiations have reached a critical point this week, with the U.S. and Israel waiting to hear back from Hamas about the latest proposal under consideration. A potential benefit of reaching an agreement, according to Biden advisers, could be to quell some of the political blowback that has exploded on college campuses.

Some family members of hostages, however, say they are concerned that the campus protests could hurt the prospect of a deal between Israel and Hamas. Several of them told NBC News that the protests are overshadowing the plight of hostages and their families and that they could affect Hamas’ decision about whether to agree to the deal under consideration given that the terrorist group thrives off chaos and unrest in the U.S.

“It certainly doesn’t help,” Jonathan Dekel-Chen said of campus protesting. His son, Sagui Dekel-Chen, is one of the Israeli American hostages Hamas still holds after more than 200 days.

“We need a deal,” said Liz Hirsh Naftali, the great-aunt of 4-year-old released American hostage Abigail Mor Edan.

Even Iran is taking notice. Tehran University professor Foad Izadi said this week: “What we are seeing on U.S. college campuses, these are our people.”

The National Security Council declined to comment.

Gillian Kaye, Sagui Dekel-Chen’s stepmom, found herself relating to the Columbia demonstrations in “an intensely personal way.” She took part in a nearly monthlong occupation of Hamilton Hall to protest apartheid in South Africa in 1985, when she was a student activist at Barnard College.

“It was a life-changing experience for me as a young person to understand that through struggle like this you can move mountains and you can move institutions,” Kaye said. Columbia would later become the first major American university to fully divest from South Africa, and many other schools followed suit.

Kaye says she understands the motivation of many of the young students who are expressing their opinions in the new movement but has difficulty at times with the way they are communicating their message.

“I do wish that there was more study and reflection about what actually is happening here and what is justice for Palestinians and Jews and the work of co-existence and how do we move toward that,” she said. “At the same time, I understand being caught up in a cause that feels absolutely black and white.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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