Strong words but weak response when a Biden aide breaks the rules
“I am not joking when I say this: If you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I will fire you on the spot … on the spot. No ifs, ands or buts.”
Those were stern words from President Biden on Jan. 20, during a virtual swearing-in ceremony for new administration appointees. Biden drew an unambiguous red line in the rhetorical sand on the treatment of colleagues: You break this rule, and you’re gone.
Yet, as we’re learning quickly with the 46th president, words and deeds are two very different things. When the president says he will fight to reopen schools in the first 100 days of his administration, he actually means reopening them one day per week. And when he says he will terminate any employee who shows disrespect to a colleague, he actually means a soft suspension.
Exhibit A manifested itself on Friday, per a blockbuster report in Vanity Fair magazine regarding deputy White House press secretary T.J. Ducklo. According to the story, which has not been denied by the White House, Ducklo threatened to “destroy” Politico reporter Tara Palmeri for pursuing a story on his relationship with Axios reporter Alexi McCammond. Ducklo also accused Palmieri of being “jealous” of the relationship and threatening to destroy her reputation if she went ahead and published her story.
scoop by me: WH comms aide TJ Ducklo threatened to “destroy” Politico’s Tara Palmeri for reporting on his relationship with an Axios reporter and accused her of just being “jealous” of his girlfriend. Jen Psaki and Kate Bedingfield then defended him https://t.co/fnwfvHsoEq
— caleb ecarma (@calebecarma) February 12, 2021
The Vanity Fair article reported: “During the off-the-record call, Ducklo made derogatory and misogynistic comments, accusing Palmeri of only reporting on his relationship — which, due to the ethics questions that factor into the relationship between a journalist and White House official, falls under the purview of her reporting beat — because she was ‘jealous’ that an unidentified man in the past had ‘wanted to f***’ McCammond ‘and not you.’ ”
Well, this would seem to be an easy one for the Biden team to handle, especially given this involves a female reporter. Ducklo clearly appeared to be bullying Palmieri out of doing her job, while using misogynistic language in the process.
Under the Jan. 20 Biden rules, Ducklo theoretically would be updating his LinkedIn page right now. Instead, the president showed that he has the backbone of your average jellyfish in giving his deputy press secretary a one-week suspension (See: “Vacation”) and a second chance.
“TJ Ducklo has apologized to the reporter, with whom he had a heated conversation about his personal life. He is the first to acknowledge this is not the standard of behavior set out by the President,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted, regarding the suspension.
It only becomes more laughable with this followup tweet: “In addition to his initial apology, he has sent the reporter a personal note expressing his profound regret.”
In addition to his initial apology, he has sent the reporter a personal note expressing his profound regret.
— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) February 12, 2021
Well, that should do it. Anything else?
“With the approval of the White House Chief of Staff, he has been placed on a one-week suspension without pay. In addition, when he returns, he will no longer be assigned to work with any reporters at Politico,” Psaki added.
With the approval of the White House Chief of Staff, he has been placed on a one-week suspension without pay. In addition, when he returns, he will no longer be assigned to work with any reporters at Politico.
— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) February 12, 2021
Wait a minute: In addition to the limp punishment, Palmeri’s publication gets punished by Team Biden taking away one of its primary sources within the Biden communications team from ever speaking to it again? How does that resemble anything close to accountability?
But here’s where things get really ugly for the White House communications team, which was hailed by more than a few people in the media as automatically 1,000 percent better and more truthful than the previous administration even before taking office. Per Vanity Fair: “The following day, an editor at Politico reached out to the White House about Ducklo’s threats, spurring multiple conversations between the news outlet and senior-level officials on January 21, including White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, and Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn. In one of those calls, senior White House officials acknowledged that Ducklo’s handling of the call with Palmeri was inappropriate and said he would send a note to her apologizing for the comments.”
Key part: Jan. 21. That’s one day after Ducklo engaged in his sexist tirade with Palmeri — and one day after Biden’s comments about firing anyone acting in exactly the manner Ducklo did.
If the Biden administration’s rule is to deal with these situations swiftly, then why wasn’t Ducklo dealt with in any capacity then? Why did it take a Vanity Fair exclusive to force them to act, albeit meekly?
President Biden certainly says all the right things around unity, compassion and respect. His press secretary echoes those sentiments on a regular basis.
But deeds are a much different matter. Psaki and other senior officials have known about Ducklo’s behavior for weeks. They did nothing, meaning that they tacitly had no issue with a male on the White House team speaking to a female from the media in that fashion.
Chalk this up as being a big black-eye for the administration that should — in a sane world — result in a cordial, hospitable media finally understanding that this administration is no friend of the press.
That’s how it should be.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.