Biden has not held a full-length news conference even though he has been president for 44 days, beating the previous laggard, President George W. Bush, who waited 33 days. (President Barack Obama held his first news conference on his 20th day and Trump on his 27th. Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan all waited less than 10 days before encountering a lengthy grilling from the White House press corps.)
According to FactBa.se, which tracks presidential utterances, Biden in his first month spoke about 65,000 words, vs. 99,000 for Trump. So that’s about two-thirds of the volume (and the tone and tenor is dialed way down).
On Wednesday, Biden participated in the House Democratic virtual retreat via video conference. He made some remarks about his coronavirus relief bill and turned the session back to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). “I’m happy to take questions if that’s what you — I’m supposed to do, Nance,” Biden said. “Whatever you want me to do.”
The White House and House feeds then both ended — and the right-wing Twitterverse erupted in outrage. The RNC tweet tries to capitalize on that controversy, but it gets some things wrong. Here’s what happened.
Here’s some of the tweets that went viral.
As in the RNC tweet, there’s an assumption that unseen White House operatives were horrified that Biden was willing to answer questions. (Who knows what he’d say!) And so they yanked the feed.
Like the RNC tweet, these tweets do not explain that Biden was addressing House members (That’s why he says “Nance,” referring to Pelosi.) For someone unaware of the context, the implication is that he might have been speaking to reporters.
The RNC even goes further and suggests Biden was actually prevented from answering questions.
But Biden did answer a pair of questions from House members. It just was never intended for the question-and-answer session to be public, in what is known in the trade as “open press.” The Q&A session was intended to be “closed press.”
“The remarks were the only part of the meeting that were planned as open press,” a White House official said, adding: “The president takes questions almost every day from the press pool. As he did yesterday morning.”
Biden taking questions privately from House members is not unusual for presidents or vice presidents attending such conferences. We checked with our congressional colleagues, and they could only recall one time in recent years when a president spoke to House members at a retreat and the question-and-answer session was “open press.”
In January 2010, Obama addressed the House Republican caucus, and he requested that the question-and-answer session be made public. The conference chair at the time, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), agreed to the unusual proposal. It made for gripping television as Republicans fiercely challenged Obama on his policies.
But otherwise the Q&A session is kept closed to the news media, and reporters have to scramble to find out what was discussed. In 2017, reporters obtained a recording of remarks made by Pence, as vice president, that had been closed to the media. (Trump typically just gave a speech to House members when he showed up and did not take any questions.)
Asked about the inaccuracies in the tweet, an RNC spokesman provided this statement to The Fact Checker: “Whether it is 44 days without taking questions from the press, or awkwardly shutting down a video feed after stating he would be happy to answer questions, there is a consistent pattern from the White House to hide President Biden from anything unscripted. The RNC’s tweet raises a legitimate question that many should be asking themselves: why is the White House afraid to let Biden speak freely?”
The Pinocchio Test
Here at The Fact Checker, we like unscripted presidents, as it gives us more material to work with. Trump certainly took it to one extreme, and Biden, in his quest to be the anti-Trump, is taking it to the opposite extreme. It’s harder to be a gaffe machine when you stick to scripted remarks. That gives us fewer opportunities to award Pinocchios.
In the Biden presidency, the burden of answering reporters’ questions has rested instead with the White House press secretary — which is actually how it used to be, before Trump in effect became his own press secretary. Since Biden took office, Jen Psaki almost every weekday has held hour-long news conferences.
The RNC could legitimately ask why Biden has limited his encounters with the media, especially his failure to hold the traditional full-length news conference during his first month in office. But it should not be tweeting misinformation.
The video feed to the media ended, but Biden did take questions. The questions were not intended to be aired publicly, which as we noted is typical at these events.
The RNC earns Three Pinocchios.
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