Biden says dissent must not lead to disorder and his support for Israel remains unwavering amid college protests

President Joe Biden on Thursday attempted to balance the right to free speech and his desire for law and order in his first extensive remarks on campus protests against the war in Gaza – but insisted he has not changed his support for Israel.

In brief remarks from the White House before leaving for North Carolina on Thursday, Biden acknowledged that the right to free speech and the right to protest are fundamental American principles, but added: “We are not a lawless country.”

“We’re a civil society,” Biden said. “And order must prevail.”

Biden’s remarks were the most substantive he’s given since protesters have set up encampments on college campuses across the country to protest how Israel has waged its campaign in Gaza, and demand that their universities take steps to divest from the country.

After his speech, Biden dismissed a reporter’s question over whether the demonstrations have caused him to reassess American policy in the Middle East, simply saying, “No.”

His decision to address the protests sweeping the country came after a series of spirited internal debates this week from the West Wing to the reelection campaign, a senior Biden official said – not about whether he should weigh in, but rather how and when.

When Biden returned to the White House on Wednesday evening from a campaign event at the nearby Mayflower Hotel, he requested his advisers assemble a basic outline of remarks on the protests, if he were to deliver them. Three White House officials say Biden and his closest aides went back and forth to incorporate Biden’s edits, with a final decision and final draft produced early Thursday morning.

Images of arrests and disorderly conduct, particularly overnight from UCLA, tipped the balance for the president to make his first fulsome comments so far on the protests. An official dismissed the notion that criticism from allies and critics alike pushed Biden to speak or whether former President Donald Trump’s remarks about Biden’s relative silence played a role.

“This is a time for leadership, the president knows that,” the senior Biden official told CNN. “This is also not a time to politicize a volatile moment.”

Senior advisers have for weeks been tracking the developments in the protests through official channels with local governments and law enforcement. Behind the scenes, younger West Wing staffers – many recent graduates themselves or with contemporaries pursuing post-graduate degrees – also sought to raise awareness from firsthand accounts they were receiving from friends on campuses, with alerts that grew in intensity in recent days.

White House advisers wanted the president to address the matter in a formal way, so the Roosevelt Room was chosen, rather than Biden answering reporters’ questions as he traveled to North Carolina on Thursday. The official rejected suggestions the president was late weighing in on the matter, but acknowledged the national moment was too fraught for Biden to not address it.

Biden’s balancing act is representative of the fraught political predicament he finds himself in: Young voters are souring on him over his continued support for Israel even as its Gaza campaign has left more than 30,000 Palestinians dead, while Republicans have slammed Biden for his relative silence since the campus encampments began popping up in earnest in recent days.

Until Thursday, Biden has said little about the unrest that has gripped certain college campuses. He told reporters at an Earth Day event on April 22 that he condemned antisemitism, but also “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Since then, Biden had avoided questions about the protests, drawing criticism from Republicans. Instead, the administration position on the unrest has been conveyed through spokespeople and in written statements.

More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested nationwide in the days since encampments have popped up. At some campuses, protesters have overtaken school buildings. An encampment at UCLA was attacked by pro-Israel counter protesters.

“We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent,” Biden said. “… Peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues.”

“But,” Biden added, “neither are we a lawless country.”

Destroying property, Biden said, “is not a peaceful protest. It’s against the law.”

“Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancelation of classes and graduation – none of this is a peaceful protest,” the president said. “Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law.”

Biden said dissent “is essential to democracy” but that it “must never lead to disorder, or to denying the rights of others.”

He added that there is no place in America for either antisemitism or Islamophobia: “It’s all wrong.”

“I understand people have strong feelings of deep convictions,” Biden said. “In America, we respect the right and protect the right for them to express that. But it doesn’t mean anything goes.”

After he was done speaking, Biden also dismissed the idea of supporting sending in the National Guard to quell protests on campus - as some Republicans have suggested state governors do - again answering with just one word: “No.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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