With every new president, the wall between the most powerful man in the world and the people charged with covering him grows higher.
Bill Clinton was affable, known to stop by in the back of Air Force One to chat with reporters — sometimes even speaking only as a “senior administration official” so he could say more and get away with it.
But George W. Bush got burned early on in his presidency by trying to chat up the AF1 journalists when one White House correspondent from a liberal news network reported every word W. said when he was off the record. He never dropped back again.
Things got worse under Barack Obama, who called only on pre-approved reporters during press conferences in which he often ran out the clock, taking an hour to answer seven or eight questions. He also limited sit-down interviews to only the most sycophantic outlets.
Donald Trump knocked a few bricks out of the wall, often holding 90-minute pressers in which he’d take 40-50 questions. But he, too, sought to limit his foes, at one point pulling the press pass of a CNN gadfly.
But Joe Biden has not only built a wall, he’s constructed an Iron Dome, complete with an army of aides who shut down reporters’ questions and drive them out of the Oval Office, shouting all the time so the president can’t hear a word.
What’s more, Biden has completely changed how things work. Every president in the modern era has held press conferences when important allies and foreign leaders come to the White House, but Biden has snubbed both the president of Israel and, just yesterday, the prime minister of Britain.
Instead, Biden called reporters into the Oval Office before his meeting with Boris Johnson (another trick: No one can ask what they talked about since they haven’t yet talked).
At the end of short remarks from the two leaders, Biden made a move to shut it all down — but Johnson had other ideas. He’d traveled across the ocean and was fully prepared to take some questions.
“But I think — would it be OK if we just have a couple of questions? Just a — just a couple of questions for the –” Johnson said.
“Good luck,” Biden said glumly.
“And I think we’re going to be ruthless. We’re going to be ruthless. I’m going to go to — I’m going to go to Harry Cole from The Sun,” the PM said.
But Cole tried to ask Biden a question. “Mr. President –” he said before being cut off.
“Hey, he — ask him the question. (Laughter.) No, I’m jo-” Biden said, apparently about to saying “joking.”
But Johnson jumped in. “I’ll take it.”
Cole still tried to question Biden. “Mr. President, is Britain still at the back of the queue for a trade deal — a free trade deal, as your predecessor, President Obama, promised?”
Johnson, apparently under the belief Biden didn’t want to play, said “Well, it’s actually (inaudible) a nice question.”
For the next few minutes, Johnson took questions, with Biden chiming in only occasionally with a terse comment.
CBS reporter Ed O’Keefe complained after the bizarre interaction.
“IN THE OVAL OFFICE… @POTUS Biden and British PM @BorisJohnson meet to discuss pandemic, trade and other issues. Johnson took 3 questions. White House aides shouted down U.S. attempts to ask questions. I asked Biden about southern border and we couldn’t decipher what he said,” he wrote on Twitter.
“A chaotic scene in the Oval Office today as Boris Johnson unexpectedly took questions from British reporters, and White House aides shouted over American reporters as we tried to ask Biden questions,” Wall Street Journal reporter Andrew Restuccia wrote.
The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) went so far as to file a formal complaint, a rare move.
“The entire editorial component of the U.S. pool went immediately into Jen Psaki’s office to register a formal complaint that no American reporters were recognized for questions in the president’s Oval Office, and that wranglers loudly shouted over the president as he seemed to give an answer to Ed O’Keefe’s question about the situation at the Southern Border,” WHCA President Steven Portnoy said.
“Psaki was unaware that the incident had occurred, and suggested that she was not in a position to offer an immediate solution,” the statement continued.
But even a reporter from the highly liberal Washington Post was beyond miffed. “Worth noting that Biden ran for office promising to restore democracy after 4 years of Trump. But today it was the British leader, NOT the American one, who spotlighted a key tenet of a flourishing democracy — respect for a free press — by taking questions from his press corps,” Ashley Parker wrote on Twitter.
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