President Biden failed to take questions from reporters at the top of a trilateral summit meeting with the leaders of Mexico and Canada Thursday — shortly after White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed Biden regularly answered press queries.
Earlier Thursday, it was unclear if Biden was aware that his staff had axed the traditional press conference with visiting world leaders. At a morning bill-signing event, Biden declined to answer a shouted question, assuring reporters, “I’ll be happy to answer your questions after I meet with all of the leaders.”
But reporters were stunned just before 6 p.m. when Biden failed to honor his pledge.
The session with Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the White House East Room was closed to the press without the American president responding to a single question.
Instead, the three leaders took turns giving opening remarks before Biden asked US national security adviser Jake Sullivan to speak.
“Thanks,” Sullivan responded. “We’ll just give the press a couple of minutes to leave the room before we get the meeting underway.”
As reporters bellowed questions, a junior White House press officer shouted at them to leave: “Let’s go! Thank you, thank you!”
Biden did take questions prior to his meeting with Trudeau, the first scheduled event of the summit, but declined to do so prior to his one-on-one with Obrador later in the day.
Following the Biden-Trudeau meeting, Psaki was asked why the White House had decided to “break with tradition” by not holding a post-summit press conference.
“I would say, first, I don’t think it’s as scandalous as that in terms of the backstory,” the press secretary responded.
“I would note that in the last three weeks, the president has hosted two press conferences — three, if you count the one after he announced the signing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, where he took a number of questions,” Psaki added. “He’s also, including today, he’s taken questions from reporters a total of at least 10 times this month.”
“There was a change in schedule as things moved around, as they sometimes do,” she went on. “As you know, he [Biden] signed three important pieces of legislation today — important for law enforcement — that had broad bipartisan support. That moved everything later in the day and schedules change and adjust, but you saw him take questions just a few minutes ago [with Trudeau].”
CBS News Radio reporter Steven Portnoy, the head of the White House Correspondents’ Association pressed Psaki later in the briefing about Biden’s remark, saying “I think I heard him say that he’d take questions after he meets with the leaders today” and asking “Should we expect a press conference tonight or tomorrow?”
“You can ask questions in any format, right?” Psaki sniped. “I don’t think you need a formal embroidered chair for it.”
Moments later, Biden sat alongside Obrador and chose not to respond to shouted questions about immigration.
While Biden does take questions from reporters regularly, he has a history of only answering one or two queries at a time and has given far fewer interviews than his predecessors.
His staff has also been forced to correct some of his erroneous comments when going off-script. On Tuesday, Biden was asked about reports the US may not send a diplomatic delegation to the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“I am the delegation,” Biden said.
White House spokesman Chris Meagher clarified to reporters Wednesday that “the president was not providing an update in his answer last night.”
At the White House and on trips abroad, reporters have repeatedly complained about lack of access when covering the president. On Wednesday, Psaki had insisted that criticism of Biden for not holding formal press conferences was “misunderstood.”
“I think I have to say I think that’s more an issue related to the White House press corps, as it’s their job to be … than it is a concern to the American public,” the press secretary told Politico’s Anita Kumar during an event hosted by the outlet’s Women Rule Exchange. “They see the president answer questions multiple times a week, they see him speaking and providing updates.”