Press secretary Jen Psaki tried to explain away President Biden’s refusal to take questions from reporters during his Tuesday sitdown with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson by claiming that the UK leader had blindsided White House aides by calling on two British reporters.
“I think our relationship with the United Kingdom and with Prime Minister Johnson is so strong and abiding, we will be able to move forward beyond this,” Psaki said Wednesday, “but he [Johnson] called on individuals from his press corps without alerting us to that intention in advance.”
After Johnson and Biden answered queries from Harry Cole of the Sun newspaper and Beth Rigby of Sky News, White House press aides known as “wranglers” began shouting and herding reporters outside the Oval Office, where the meeting was taking place.
“That’s absurd,” one reporter was heard complaining as he headed outside. “Two British reporters get questions and we don’t get anything.”
The snafu led members of the White House editorial pool to complain to Psaki directly, though the press secretary brushed off their complaints and rebuffed the suggestion by CBS News Radio’s Steven Portnoy that Biden hold a press conference.
CBS White House correspondent Ed O’Keefe, whose question to Biden about the ongoing migration crisis at the southern border received a half-heard answer from the president amid the chaos, asked Psaki Wednesday for her “understanding” of what had transpired.
“The British Prime Minister, in the American Oval Office, called on British reporters and then, when American reporters tried to call on the American President, we were escorted out,” O’Keefe complained.
Psaki responded by pointing the finger at the prime minister.
A few minutes later, Portnoy asked Psaki whether Biden felt he had been “upstaged” by Johnson in front of the trans-Atlantic press.
“I think the president has not spent a moment worrying about it,” the press secretary answered.
Portnoy then asked Psaki, “when can we expect to have the opportunity to ask the president substantive, pointed questions” on issues including the forthcoming deadline to avoid a government shutdown and the collapse of police reform negotiations on Capitol Hill.
The press secretary responded by claiming that Biden had “answered questions 135 times leading up to September; three times last week. And he’ll keep looking for forums to answer the questions from all of you, something that he sees as vitally important to our democracy.”
“But in this month of September, most of the occasions we’ve had have been fleeting,” Portnoy pressed. “In fact, there are some occasions where he’s only taken one question and walked away, and most of those occasions have occurred outside of this building. So, when can we expect to have an opportunity to actually ask the president questions in a formal setting?”
“Again, Steve, I’m not trying to diminish your ask for a formal press conference — which certainly, I’m sure, we will have another one,” Psaki answered, “but I will convey to you that as it relates to providing information to the public, elevating the importance of the freedom of press to our democracy, that I don’t know that the format, whether it is multiple shorter Q-and-As or a longer, formal press conference is at the top of the list of the American public’s concern.”
“We intend to raise the matters of concern to the public at those press conferences,” Portnoy told her.
“As you have during 140 times you’ve asked the president questions,” Psaki shot back.
In addition to the matters raised by Portnoy, other issues which Biden has not discussed publicly include the recent diplomatic row with France over the strategic alliance among the US, the UK and Australia; the admission by the Pentagon last week that a drone strike in the final days of the Afghanistan withdrawal killed 10 innocent people — including an aid worker and seven children; how many of the thousands of Haitian migrants camped under a Texas bridge for days have been deported and how many have been released into the United States; and ongoing Democratic infighting over the fate of the president’s signature $3.5 trillion spending proposal.
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