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WASHINGTON — President Biden ignored and even laughed off press questions at a St. Patrick’s Day meeting with visiting Irish leader Leo Varadkar — refusing to engage despite major crises including US bank failures, a Russian jet downing a US drone and revelations in GOP probes of his family’s foreign business dealings.
The media duck came despite press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre attempting to quell a reporter revolt Thursday over the lack of a planned press conference by saying Biden might take questions Friday in the Oval Office.
The 80-year-old president instead smiled, chuckled and raised his eyebrows as he spurned shouted questions while sitting alongside Varadkar — as junior West Wing aides bellowed at journalists, “Thank you so much!” and “Please follow this way.”
Without a formal press conference, Varadkar, whose title taoiseach is equivalent to the role of prime minister, was left to talk to reporters on the White House driveway — a less dignified venue than the East Room or Rose Garden, where US presidents typically host visiting heads of state for press conferences.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also spoke with reporters on the White House driveway on Feb. 10 when Biden similarly declined to host a joint press conference.
Biden has given about half as many press conferences as his recent predecessors — hosting just 22 during his first two years in office, versus Donald Trump’s 41, Barack Obama’s 46 and George W. Bush’s 40 during the same period, according to data kept by Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project.
Biden also lags in interviews, giving 58 in his first two years, versus Trump’s 205, Obama’s 275 and Bush’s 89 during the same spans. Some of Biden’s interviews have been with Democratic activists and social media influencers.
Although Biden’s informal question-and-answer sessions — 375 over two years — outpace Trump’s 339, Obama’s 75 and Bush’s 243, they often are extremely brief engagements that can feature as little as a single-word reply before the commander-in-chief walks away.
In a rare airing of grievances, White House Correspondents’ Association board member Karen Travers, a reporter for ABC, on Thursday pressed Jean-Pierre to explain the recent lack of traditional joint press conferences with world leaders.
“This is kind of becoming a pattern with a lot of the world leaders who are coming to the White House,” Travers said at Jean-Pierre’s regular briefing.
“Your colleagues will have an opportunity to ask questions during the pool spray at the Oval that happen[s] every time a head of state visits,” Jean-Pierre replied.
“So that is an opportunity to be able to pose a question to the president or the head of state that is visiting the White House.”
“Karine, he never answers questions during those pool sprays,” a journalist countered.
“That’s not true,” Jean-Pierre said.
In a foreshadowing of Friday’s presidential shutdown of the press, a chorus of journalists chimed in to inform Jean-Pierre that Biden often refuses questions in Oval Office pool sprays.
“We get shouted at,” one interjected. “We get shoved out.”
Another journalist at the briefing told Jean-Pierre, “We get yelled at, ‘Press, thank you! Thank you!’”
Yet another added, “The press is normally shouted down when we’re in the Oval Office.”
Amid the din, one reporter pressed Jean-Pierre, “Will you commit to having him answer a question tomorrow?”
“I hear you guys,” Jean-Pierre said, trying to calm the uproar, before saying she could not commit to Biden entertaining questions during the Friday visit in honor of Ireland’s patron saint.
“I cannot speak to if — who’s going to take questions or who’s not going to take questions,” Jean-Pierre said.
“As you know, this is a president that takes shouted questions often.”
Biden also declined to host a joint press conference for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s March 3 visit to the White House and didn’t hold a press conference Monday while hosting UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego.
During a Jan. 10 press conference in Mexico City with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, press officers decided that each leader would take a single reporter’s questions.
The leader of the free world’s apparent aversion to questions has caused awkward optics and criticism — especially after then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson took questions in the Oval Office in 2021 while Biden refused to do so.
Reporters also have blasted the White House for a mysterious prescreening process for journalists allowed into Biden events — a practice that has endured long after the White House’s COVID-19 masking, social distancing and testing rules for such events ended.
Journalists from nearly two-thirds of briefing room seats signed a rare protest letter in June saying the practice “undermines President Biden’s credibility when he says he is a defender of the First Amendment.”
The enduring non-transparent pre-screening of media — in which press officers cite “space limitations” despite there often being plenty of space and even empty seats at venues — is widely understood to be a way of shaping the variety of questions presented to the president.
Lately, Biden has shut down questioning when he hears a query he doesn’t like.
This month, Biden approached the press to speak as he departed the White House for his regular weekend trip home to Delaware, but abruptly changed his mind, shrugged and walked away when asked about the origins of COVID-19.
On Feb. 16, he also appeared willing to answer questions but scoffed, “Give me a break, man” and stomped off when asked if his ability to deal with China was “compromised” by his family’s business relations.
Biden’s relatively rare press conferences have featured significant gaffes.
At his second solo White House press conference, in January 2022, he said NATO would react differently if Russia launched a “minor incursion” into Ukraine versus a full-scale invasion — alarming Ukrainian officials who said that such talk could be seen as weakness by Russian President Vladimir Putin and as a “green light” to invade, which happened weeks later.
In November, the nation’s oldest-ever president, who is gearing up for a 2024 re-election campaign, called on nine reporters at a White House press conference — one fewer than the 10 he said that he would — and ended the Q&A after mistakenly saying Russian troops were pulling out of “Fallujah,” a city in Iraq while intending to identify the city of Kherson in southeastern Ukraine.