President Biden on Friday came clean, during a visit to the White House by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa — admitting, “I wasn’t arrested” trying to visit Nelson Mandela, despite saying so at least three times in 2020.
But Biden proceeded to tell Ramaphosa that he was “stopped” trying to visit Mandela — a claim that also has faced withering fact-checks and contradiction even from Biden supporters.
Biden admitted that his past remarks were untrue while welcoming Ramaphosa to the Oval Office.
“One of the great moments of my career was when — the first time Nelson Mandela came to the United States [in 1990]. And we were in — I was a senator at the time, and we met in the Senate Foreign Relations executive committee room,” Biden told Ramaphosa.
“And he came in we all stood there and said hello to him and the like and afterwards, he asked if he could come by my office and he came by to say thank you because he heard I had been stopped trying to get to visit him, to see him in prison.”
Biden then fessed up, “And I said once — I said I got arrested. I wasn’t arrested, I got stopped, prevented from moving. But he was extremely gracious.”
Biden said at least three times that he was arrested attempting to visit Mandela on his prison island near Cape Town. The story attracted scrutiny because of glaring geographical issues — including the fact that he claimed to be arrested in Johannesburg, more than 760 miles from Robben Island.
Biden’s team later admitted it was untrue and that he was simply “separated” from other congressmen at an airport during a 1976 visit to Lesotho, a country that borders South Africa. But even that revision was contradicted by another congressman on the trip.
The Washington Post’s fact check column called Biden’s claim that he was arrested in South Africa “ridiculous.”
On one occasion in February 2021, Biden told a South Carolina audience that I had the great honor of being arrested with our U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see [Mandela] on Robbens [sic] Island.”
In separate remarks the same month in Nevada, Biden said that in 1977 he “came back from South Africa, trying to see Nelson Mandela and getting arrested for trying to see him on Robbens [sic] Island.”
Days earlier, Biden said, also in Nevada, that Mandela “[Mandela] came to Washington and came to my office. He threw his arms around me and said, ‘I want to say thank you.’ I said, ‘What are you thanking me for, Mr. President?’ He said: ‘You tried to see me. You got arrested trying to see me.’”
Biden spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield admitted to the Washington Post that the story was false and that Biden “was separated from the [Congressional Black Caucus] members he was traveling with at the airport, when he landed… It was a separation. He was not allowed to go through the same door as the rest of the party he was with.”
But Bedingfield didn’t admit that Biden was in black-ruled Lesotho, rather than Apartheid South Africa when he was allegedly stopped at an airport — earning further ridicule from Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, who called the statement “puzzling.”
“Obviously, this was apartheid South Africa,” Bedingfield wrongly said in the statement. “There was a white door. There was a black door. He did not want to go through the white door, and have the rest of the party go to the black door. He was separated.”
Biden himself sought to mop up his remarks during a CNN interview in 2020, but ended up further compounding factual issues.
“They had me get off a plane — the Afrikaners got on in the short pants and their guns. Led me off first and moved me in a direction totally different. I turned around and everybody, the entire black delegation, was going another way,” Biden claimed to CNN. “I said, ‘I’m not going to go in that door that says white only. I’m going with them.’ They said, ‘You’re not, you can’t move, you can’t go with them.’ And they kept me there until finally I decided that it was clear I wasn’t going to move.”
Former Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.), a Biden supporter who was on the same trip to Lesotho, told the Washington Post he had “no recollection at all” of Biden’s claims and “we had no problem with airports at any of the countries we visited” — and that Biden “wasn’t the only white guy on the trip.”
Biden, 79, is the oldest-ever US president and his mental acuity is frequently a matter of public debate. He often shares false stories while attempting to demonstrate a personal connection to his audiences.
In January, Biden told students of historically black colleges in Atlanta that he was arrested during civil rights protests — for which there is no evidence.
Biden in September 2021 told Jewish leaders that he remembered “spending time at” and “going to” the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh after the mass murder of 11 people there in 2018. The synagogue said he never visited and the White House later said he was thinking about a 2019 phone call to the synagogue’s rabbi.
Also in September last year, Biden told an Idaho audience that his “first job offer” came from local lumber and wood products business Boise Cascade. The company said it was news to them and Biden had not previously described an interest in moving to the state.
And In May, Biden said at the Naval Academy’s graduation ceremony that he was appointed to the military school in 1965 by the late Sen. J. Caleb Boggs (R-Del.). A search of Boggs’ archives failed to turn up evidence of the appointment.