Call him a disappointed extrovert. President Joe Biden had to settle for meeting virtually Thursday with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin after the visiting leader’s positive test for COVID-19 scrambled plans to mark St. Patrick’s Day at the White House.
“I'm really deeply sorry for the inconvenience that we have to meet virtually this year," Biden said to Martin, who dialed in by video link while isolating at Blair House across the street from the White House. The traditional crystal bowl of shamrocks gifted to the U.S. president was displayed next to the television monitor set up next to Biden's chair in the Oval Office.
“I'm doing good, and I think that reminds of the vaccines and that the vaccines prevent severe illness," Martin told Biden.
Biden and Martin joined to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has jolted the world and brought the U.S. and its European allies to unite in condemnation and in placing stiff sanctions on Russia.
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“We have to be united,” Biden said. “We certainly are. But Putin’s brutality and what his troops are doing in Ukraine is just inhumane.”
Martin said he saluted Biden's leadership in marshaling democracies against what he called an “unjustifiable and immoral war." “It's firm, it's determined, it's measured, it's strong,” Martin said.
Biden also reaffirmed U.S. support for the Good Friday accords, which were signed in 1998 and helped end sectarian violence that had raged for three decades over the issue of Northern Ireland unifying with Ireland or remaining part of the United Kingdom.
The virtual meeting kicked off the first in a daylong set of festivities that were reimagined after the Irish leader's diagnosis.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was “disappointed” by the virus-induced change, saying the president “was looking forward to having the meeting today.”
“He is an extrovert, extrovert, extrovert,” she said, noting Biden much prefers in-person meetings to Zoom. She said Biden was glad he could continue with the other scheduled events of the day and expressed hope that next year's celebration would go off without a hitch.
“There will be more in the future," she said.
Martin also sat out out the annual “Friends of Ireland Luncheon” at the Capitol hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and attended by Biden. Biden went ahead with a White House reception Thursday evening, but Martin did not participate.
Martin learned he had tested positive Wednesday evening while attending an event with Biden and Pelosi, but the White House said the president was not considered a close contact of Martin — also referred to as Ireland’s taoiseach.
Pelosi said she sat with Martin at the dinner. She said he was wearing a mask but took it off as they sat together to eat. It was during the appetizer when he was called aside. He later left the table, right before she was to present him with an award.
All three leaders are vaccinated and boosted.
As for her own health, Pelosi said she is tested almost every day, and will continue following the guidelines from the Capitol’s Office of the Attending Physician on COVID-19. She said she did not count the minutes she sat with the Irish leader.
Biden, meanwhile, said he was glad to briefly see Martin “for seven and a half minutes” at the event.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “close contact” with an infected person as spending 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. The CDC says people with “close contact” does not need to quarantine if they are up to date on their vaccines, but they should wear a well-fitting mask around other people for 10 days after their contact.
“We’re very, very sad that on St. Patrick’s Day the Taoiseach has this diagnosis,” Pelosi said.
The lunch proceeded with many members present. Introducing Biden at the lunch, Pelosi joked that while she is Italian herself, “I do have Irish grandchildren.” She led the bipartisan crowd in toast to Biden’s health after the president's remarks.
Pelosi used the experience to push additional federal COVID-19 aid after a funding package sought by Biden fell apart last week. She noted that former President Barack Obama had recently tested positive for the virus as well and questioned how people with fewer resources would fare.
“We want to move on, but we don’t want to move on and leave people behind,” she said. “We need the money.”
This year marks the Irish-American Biden’s second St. Patrick’s Day in office, but his first with substantial in-person events after last year’s celebrations were suspended by the pandemic.