Joe Biden Speaks About Americans Detained Overseas During White House Correspondents' Association Dinner

US President Joe Biden delivered a message on press freedom and Americans detained overseas during the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington, DC, on Saturday, April 29.

Biden began by praising the role of journalism in American society, calling it “a pillar, maybe the pillar, of free society, not the enemy” and delivering the message: “Journalism is not a crime.”

The president spoke at length about his administration’s work to bring back Americans imprisoned overseas, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

Biden addressed the families of those detained overseas, saying: “I want them and their families to know – Jill and I understand, we see them, they are not forgotten, and I promise you, I am working like hell to get them home.”

The evening also had room for jokes, with Biden poking fun at his age and former CNN broadcaster Don Lemon, who was taken off air after ageist comments.

There were also jibes aimed at Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over his lawsuit from Disney. Credit: The White House via Storyful

Video transcript

JOE BIDEN: Jill, Kamala, Doug and I, and members of our administration are here to send a message to the country and, quite frankly, to the world. The free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar, of free society, not the enemy. Thomas Jefferson wrote-- you all know this quote.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter. To Evan's parents Ella, McHale, and sister Danielle, as I've told you in person, we not just me. We all stand with you.

Evan went to report in Russia to shed light on the darkness that you all escaped from years ago. Absolute courage. A handwritten letter from prison to his family, Evans wrote, quote, I am not losing hope.

In an interview, his mom Ella said one of the American qualities that we absorbed is to be optimistic. That's where we stand right now. To the entire family, everyone in this hall stands with you. We're working every day to secure his release, looking at opportunities and tools to bring him home.

We keep the faith. We also keep the faith For Austin, Austin Tice. His mom, Deborah, is here tonight.

She knows from our several conversations the conversations that me and my senior staff, we are not giving up. As I've told you at this dinner last year as I told you in the Oval Office, you raised an incredible son. When he was a kid, he was an Eagle Scout, a big brother, a born protector, a US Marine-- three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Austin-- Austin is a fearless journalist and a future lawyer. As a consequence of Austin showing the world the cost of war, he's been detained in Syria for nearly 11 years. It's simply wrong, it's outrageous, and we are not ceasing our effort to get him, find him, and bring him home.

Tonight, our message is this. Journalism is not a crime. Evan and Austin should be released immediately, along with every other American held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.

Paul Whelan, unjustly held in Russia for more than four years, whose brave sister I've met with and whose family has never quit fighting for Paul, and I promise you-- neither will I and neither will this administration until we get him home. And there are other Americans being unjustly held in Iran, Venezuela, China, and elsewhere. Their stories may not make headlines or hashtags, but every day, every day, their family looks at that empty chair at the kitchen table.

Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays without them-- the pain of living in limbo in a sense is almost worth the pain of having lost a child and looking at an empty chair. The stress of not knowing, the sorrow of uncertainty-- but I want them and their families to know. Jill and I understand.

We see them. They are not forgotten. And I promise you, I am working like hell to get them home.

As a nation, I'll never give up on hope. Things can get better. Things can turn. Things can change.

Tonight, unlike last year, Brittney Griner is here with her wife, Cherelle. Brittney, where are you, kid? Stand up. Come on. I love this woman.

I love you, Brittney. This time last year, we were praying for you, Britney, hoping you knew how hard all of us were fighting for your release. It's great to have you home.

And boys, I can hardly wait to see you back on the court case. Remember your promise. I get to bring my granddaughter, my all-state girl, to see you, right? Because of our unrelenting efforts, we've been able to bring home dozens of hostages and wrongful detainees from Afghanistan, Burma, Haiti, Iran, Rwanda, Venezuela, across West Africa, around the world.

But we're doing everything we can to prevent these cases from occurring in the first place. For example, the State Department added the threat of detention as a new risk indicator to its travel advisories to go along with the threat of kidnapping, the war on Americans where these threats are highest abroad. I also recently signed an executive order increasing the consequences for criminal groups and terrorists who engage in the appalling practice of treating human beings as bargaining chips, political pawns.

Just two days ago, my administration announced the first sanctions under this new authority punishing individuals and security services in Russia and Iran who have been part of the wrongful detention of Americans. Above all, across government, experts are working day and night to bring our fellow Americans home, much of which, as you well know, we can't talk about, concern that would backfire. But my commitment, my commitment is to bring them home, just as I know your commitment to continue to be a free and fearless press.

And that's what we honor tonight. This is not hyperbole. You make it possible.

You make it possible for ordinary citizens to question authority and, yes, even to laugh at authority without fear or intimidation. That's what makes this nation strong. So tonight, let us show ourselves and the world our strength-- not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.

Folks, I know a lot's changed in the press. I've had a lot of conversations with a lot of you. This is not your father's press from 20 years ago.

No, I'm serious, and you all know it better than I do. But still, it is absolutely consequential and essential. After all, I believe in the First Amendment, not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it. What?

In a lot of ways, this dinner sums up my first two years in office. I'll talk for 10 minutes, take zero questions, then cheerfully walk away. Yeah, I know. I just announced my re-election campaign. Some of you scooped that I'd announced in the video. But really, you really all thought in your heart that I'd just blurt it out, didn't you?

- We tried.

JOE BIDEN: And look. I get that age is completely reasonable issue. It's in everybody's mind.

And everyone-- by everyone, I mean "The New York Times." Headline-- Biden's advanced age is the big issue. Trump's, however, is not.

Sorry, that was the "New York Times" Pitch Bot. I apologize. I love that guy. I should do an interview with him.

You might think I don't like Rupert Murdoch. That's simply not true. How can I dislike a guy who makes me look like Harry Styles?

You call me old? I call it being seasoned. You say I'm ancient. I say I'm wise.

You say I'm over the hill. Don Lemon would say that's a man in his prime. Folks, it's wonderful to be back here again, proving I haven't learned a damn thing.

I want everybody to have fun tonight, but please be safe. If you find yourself disoriented or confused, it's either you're drunk or Marjorie Taylor Greene. Tam thank you for hosting us. I love NPR.

- Uh oh.

JOE BIDEN: Because they whisper into the mic like I do. But not everybody loves NPR. Elon Musk tweeted that it should be defunded Well, the best way to make NPR go away is for Elon Musk to buy it. And that's more true than you think.

Anyway, this dinner is one of the two great traditions in Washington. The other one is underestimating me and Kamala. Well, the truth is, we really have a record to be proud of.

Vaccinated the nation, transformed the economy, earned historic legislative victories in midterm results, but the job isn't finished. I mean, it is finished for Tucker Carlson. What are you wooing about like that? Like you think that's not reasonable?

Give me a break. Just give me a break. Look.

Like I often say, don't compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative. We added 12 million jobs. That's just counting the lawyers that defended the President.

Had Ron-- DeSantis I had a lot of Ron DeSantis jokes ready. But Mickey Mouse beat the hell out of me, got there first. Now, look.

Can't be too rough on the guy. After his re-election as governor, he was asked if he had a mandate. He said, hell no, I'm straight. I'm straight. I'll give you time to think that one through.

- That's really good.

JOE BIDEN: You got it? Look, y'all keep reporting my approval ratings as 42%. But what-- I think you don't know this. Kevin McCarthy called me and asked me, Joe, what the hell's your secret? I'm not even kidding about that one.

The Speaker is trying to claim a big win this week. But the last time Republicans voted on something that hapless, it took 15 tries. That was good.

Look, It's great that cable news networks are here tonight-- MSNBC owned by NBC Universal, Fox News owned by Dominion Voting Systems. Last year, your favorite Fox News reporters were able to attend because they were fully vaccinated and boosted. This year, with that $787 million settlement, they're here because they couldn't say no to a free meal.

And hell, I'd call Fox honest, fair, and truthful, but then I could be sued for defamation. That ain't nothing compared what they do to me. Look. I hope the Fox News team finds this funny. My goal is to make them laugh as hard as CNN did when they read the settlement.

But then again, CNN was like, wow, they actually have $787 million? Whoa! Folks, I go where people are-- "The Daily Show."

Roy is a great guy. He once dubbed me the Jay-Z of Delaware. Don't let that look on your face. You did.

Tonight, he asked me to keep it short. He even offered me $10 if I'd keep it under 10 minutes. That's a switch-- a President being offered hush money.

Look, I'm going to leave the jokes to the pros, but let me conclude on a genuinely serious note. Roy was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He graduated from a great HBCU, Florida A&M.

He started in journalism to follow in the footsteps of his father, Roy Wood Senior, who covered the Civil Rights movement. During Black History month this year, I hosted a screening of the movie '"Till." The story of Emmett Till and his mother as a story of a family's promise and loss in a nation's reckoning with hate, violence, and abuse of power.

It's a story that was seared into our memory and our conscience, the nation's conscience, when Mrs. Till insisted an open casket for her murdered and maimed 14-year-old son be the means by which he was transported. She said, let the people see what I've seen. The reason the world saw what she saw was because of another hero in this story-- the Black press.

That's a fact. "Jet Magazine," "The Chicago Defender," and other Black radio and newspapers were unflinching and brave and making sure America saw what she saw. And I mean it

Ida B. Wells-- Ida B. Wells once said, and I quote, the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon the wrongs. Turn the light of truth upon the wrongs. That's the sacred view-- in my view, that's the sacred charge of a free press, and I mean that.

That's what someone we still miss so much, who we honored posthumously, stood for-- Gwen Ifill. You know, she was among the very best we've talked about at the table. She moderated my first debate for Vice President and was a trusted voice for millions of Americans.

Gwen understood the louder the noise, the more it's on all of us to cut through the noise to the truth. The truth matters. As I said last year at this dinner, the poison is running through our democracy and parts of the extreme press-- truth buried by lies and lies living on as truth, lies told for profit and power, lies of conspiracy and malice repeated over and over again, designed to generate a cycle of anger, hate, and even violence-- a cycle that emboldens, history to be buried, books to be banned, children and families be attacked by the state, and the rule of law and our rights and freedoms to be stripped away.

When our elected representatives of the people are expelled from state houses for standing for the people-- I've made clear that we know in our bones, and you know it too, our democracy remains at risk. But I've also made it clear, as I've seen throughout my life, it's within our power, each and every one of us, to preserve our democracy. We can, we must, we will.

I'd like to make a toast if I had a glass. My grandfather Ambrose Finnegan said, if you ever make a toast without looking, you've got to hold your left hand. Y'all think I'm kidding. I'm not.

I'm probably the only Irish you ever met who'e never had a drink in his life. Anyway, I'd like to make a toast, seriously. At this inflection point in history, let us commit that we'll be a nation that will embrace light over darkness, truth over lies, and finally, finally, finally restore the soul of the nation. Here, here.

- Here, here.

JOE BIDEN: Ladies and gentlemen-- can I give you that?

- Yes.

JOE BIDEN: I'm going to turn this over to Roy. Roy, the podium is yours. I'm going to be fine with your jokes, but I'm not sure about Dark Brandon All yours, pal.