The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden held a record-long news conference. Conservative media jumped at the chance.

President Biden calls on a reporter during a White House news conference on Jan. 19, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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President Biden may have discovered one of the drawbacks to holding long news conferences: You might get a few questions you didn’t see coming.

Biden held a record-long, nearly two-hour exchange with reporters Wednesday, on the eve of his first anniversary in office.

He seemed to stick to the usual White House game plan for the first part of the presser, consulting a seating chart and calling select reporters’ names off a list.

But as time wore on, Biden freelanced, calling on whoever had a hand raised.

That opened the floor to questions from conservative outlets and reporters who don’t often get to interrogate the president — and some jarring exchanges.

Steven Nelson, a reporter from the New York Post, asked Biden why he “didn’t press for transparency” about the origins of the coronavirus during a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November. Nelson added a second part to the question: Was Biden’s alleged failure to press Xi related to his son’s involvement in an investment firm controlled by Chinese-state entities?

The question combined two conservative talking points: That the Chinese government is hiding information about where the virus came from, and that Biden has allegedly benefited from business dealings with China. There’s no evidence for the latter claim; the New York Post, however, asserted as much just before the 2020 election in a controversial story that alleged Biden and his son Hunter had ties to Chinese business interests.

In response to Nelson, Biden replied that he did, in fact, press Xi on the virus’ origins during their call in November. But he ducked Nelson’s insinuation that his actions were related to his son. “I made it clear that China has an obligation to be more forthcoming on exactly what the source of the virus was,” the president said, before moving on to another reporter.

Biden soon called on Fox News reporter Peter Doocy, who has become famous for his give-and-take with White House press secretary Jen Psaki during daily media briefings. Doocy got right to the point with Biden, asking, “Why are you trying so hard in your first year to pull the country so far to the left?”

Biden chuckled.

He went on to dispute the question’s premise, saying his successful efforts to secure pandemic relief and infrastructure funding were widely supported by Democrats and some Republicans. “You guys have been trying to convince me I’m Bernie Sanders,” he said, referring to the liberal senator from Vermont. “I like him, but I’m not. I’m a mainstream Democrat.”

Biden was not amused when Philip Wegmann, a reporter from RealClearPolitics, pressed him about a speech last week in which the president compared lawmakers who oppose Democratic-backed voting rights legislation to the infamous segregationists George Wallace and Bull Connor. His voice rising, Biden told Wegmann: “Go back and read what I said. Tell me if you think I called anyone who voted on the side of the position taken by Bull Connor that they were Bull Connor.

He added, “That is an interesting reading of English. I assume you got into journalism because you like to write.”

In fact, Biden did invoke such a comparison while speaking in Atlanta last week. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” he said then. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?”

Biden acknowledged that his news conference had grown disorderly at one point. “I want to thank my communications staff for the great help here,” he said jokingly, drawing laughs from the assembled reporters.

Finally, there was reporter James Rosen, from the conservative Newsmax network, which has avidly promoted former president Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud in the 2020 election.

Rosen said he wanted to raise a “delicate subject.” Referring to a poll released that morning, he asked Biden why a “large segment of the American electorate” had come to “harbor such profound concerns about your cognitive fitness.”

Biden answered quickly: “I have no idea,” he said. And then he moved on.

Jeremy Barr and Sarah Ellison contributed to this report.