Biden faces pressure from Republicans to speak out on college protests

Biden will deliver a speech on antisemitism next week, the White House said.

President Joe Biden is facing pressure from Republicans to more forcefully speak out on the college protests unfolding nationwide in connection to the Israel-Hamas war.

The campus unrest has created a political opportunity for Republicans, typically fractured on a number of issues but united against university leaders and as staunch supporters of Israel, to hold Biden's feet to the fire as he navigates a divided Democratic caucus.

"When will the president himself, not his mouthpieces, condemn these hate-filled little Gazas?" GOP Sen. Tom Cotton said on Wednesday alongside other Republican senators at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

Biden himself last commented on the matter on April 22, when he said he condemned the "antisemitic protests" and also those who "don't understand what's going on with the Palestinians."

The White House announced on Wednesday that Biden will deliver a major speech on antisemitism next week at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's annual Day of Remembrance Ceremony, but went to great lengths to avoid answering why he hasn't addressed what's played out at college and university campuses in recent days.

President Joe Biden speaks before signing a $95 billion Ukraine aid package that also includes support for Israel, Taiwan, and other allies, in the State Dining Room of the White House, April 24, 2024.
Evan Vucci/AP

"The president is being regularly updated on what's happening," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday during the daily briefing. "He is monitoring the situation closely. So is his team. And I would just add that no president, no president has spoken more forcefully about combating antisemitism than this president."

Jean-Pierre pointed to Biden's past comments condemning antisemitism, including his sharp denouncement of the clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters that occurred in Charlottesville in 2017, a moment he's said prompted him to run for president.

Jean-Pierre also indicated Biden has not spoken to officials from the universities, telling ABC News White House Correspondent Karen Travers she had no calls to read out or share.

Peppered with questions about what Biden thought about recent developments, including the New York Police Department clearing protesters from Columbia University and reports of violence at UCLA, Jean-Pierre deferred to local officials and reiterated Americans have the right to peacefully protest -- though she made clear occupying a building does not meet that definition.

Americans "have the right to peacefully protest, as long as it's within the law and that it's peaceful," she said. "Forcibly taking over a building is not peaceful. It's just not. Students have the right to feel safe, they have the right to learn, they have the right to do this without disruption ... They have a right to attend their commencement without feeling unsafe."

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily press briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, May 1, 2024.
Bonnie Cash/Reuters

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are ramping up their rhetoric this week on the protests and against the administration.

House Republicans on Tuesday announced a coordinated effort among committee chairs to investigate how university leadership has dealt with the protests. Notices have gone to the presidents of Yale, UCLA and the University of Michigan to appear before the Education Committee on May 23.

Senate Republicans joined in the criticism on Wednesday with a press conference of their own on the college protests, which they painted as "chaos."

Sen. Tom Cotton accompanied by Sen. Joni Ernst and Sen. Roger Marshall, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, May 1, 2024.
Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

The college protests had been largely peaceful for weeks, officials said, but intensified recently following arrests and clashes at some schools. Officials in New York said protesters unaffiliated with Columbia University have been escalating violence.

Pro-Palestinian students and protesters have called for their colleges to divest from funding Israeli military operations amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Some Jewish students have called the demonstrations antisemitic and said they fear for their safety.

Republican senators called for various responses, including that the federal government revoke student visas for overseas students involved in protests and that the Education Department investigate and possibly withhold funding to schools if they can't protect students.

"We're serious about this," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the chamber's top Republican. "We're going to take a look at what legislatively we might do to deal with this problem."

Biden was also a target of GOP remarks, some of whom suggested he was acting out of political calculus.

"Why are the university presidents and why is this president turning his head from the violent crimes going on?" said Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan.

"He is catering to a handful of votes in Michigan," Marshall said. "He is totally politically driven rather than doing the right thing."

ABC News' Mariam Khan contributed to this report.