President Biden and his press department have tried to change the tone of correspondents who endured years of hostility while covering the previous administration.
That effort was undercut last month when a White House deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo threatened a Politico journalist who covered his close personal relationship with a reporter who covered Mr Biden. On Friday after Mr Ducklo’s threat came to light, the White House announced that it had suspended him for a week without pay.
In a phone call on January 20, Mr. Ducklo told reporter Tara Palmeri, a writer of Politico’s Playbook newsletter, that he was “destroying” her after inquiring about his romantic relationship with Alexi McCammond, an Axios reporter would have.
Ms Palmeri asked about the relationship because it coincided with Mr Ducklo’s time as Mr Biden’s press secretary during the presidential campaign and the transition period between election day and inauguration. Axios reassigned Ms. McCammond after telling her superiors about the relationship in November, taking her out of coverage of Mr. Biden and putting her in one fell swoop, which includes Vice President Kamala Harris.
Mr Ducklo’s threats against Ms. Palmeri were reported by Vanity Fair on Friday and confirmed by two people who were aware of the phone call.
On Monday, Politico informed the White House that it would publish an article in Playbook about the relationship the next day. That night, People’s Politico hit the story and published a feel-good article titled “Reporters Cut Out on the President While Romance Blooms With Biden Aide For Cancer.” (Mr. Ducklo was being treated for lung cancer.)
Politico’s article appeared Tuesday morning under the heading “Open Secret”. Axios was charged with allowing a reporter to continue reporting on the White House while with a member of the administration.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday that Mr. Ducklo “will no longer work with reporters at Politico” following his suspension.
“TJ Ducklo apologized to the reporter with whom he had a heated discussion about his personal life,” Ms. Psaki said in a statement. “He is the first to recognize that this is not the standard of conduct set by the president. In addition to his initial apology, he sent the reporter a personal note expressing his deep regret. “
Politico editor-in-chief Matt Kaminski and his editor-in-chief Carrie Budoff Brown said in a statement Friday that they raised concerns about the threatened statements made to the White House shortly after the phone call.
“No journalist at Politico – or any other publication or network – should ever be exposed to such unfounded personal attacks while doing his job,” the statement said.
In a remark shortly before the swearing-in ceremony for members of his administration last month, Mr Biden said he would not hesitate to fire employees who behaved disrespectfully.
“If you ever work with me and I hear that you are treating another colleague with disrespect, speak to someone, I promise I will fire you immediately,” warned Mr. Biden. “No ifs and buts. Everyone has the right to be treated with decency and dignity. That has been very missing in the last four years. “
At a White House briefing Friday, Ms. Psaki defended the decision to suspend Mr. Ducklo instead of firing him, despite describing his behavior as “totally unacceptable”. She didn’t explain why he wasn’t suspended until Vanity Fair reported on the exchange.