News & Politics

The White House Response to the TJ Ducklo Story Should Remind Reporters: Press Staff Are Not Your Friends

He got a one-week suspension for alleged awful behavior. So much for the Biden administration's "deep respect" for the press.

Photograph via C-Span.

When White House press secretary Jen Psaki gave her first briefing on January 20, she said she possessed “deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and for the role all of you play.” Even when the administration didn’t appreciate examination, she said, “we have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”

That goal apparently does not apply when the press asks about Psaki’s staffers dating a journalist who covers the administration.

As Caleb Ecarma reports in Vanity Fair, Psaki’s deputy TJ Ducklo threatened Politico reporter Tara Palmeri when she looked into his relationship with Axios reporter Alexi McCammond. Ducklo, Ecarma writes, “tried to intimidate Palmeri by phone in an effort to kill the story,” threatening her by saying ” “I will destroy you,” and accused her of being jealous that 1) “an unidentified man in the past had ‘wanted to fuck’ McCammond ‘and not you”; and also said Palmeri was “’jealous’ of his relationship with McCammond.”

The White House’s response? It suspended Ducklo for one week without pay, and forbade him to deal with Politico reporters in the future.

Palmeri was lead author on Tuesday’s edition of Politico’s Playbook, which outlined both the White House and Axios’s bumbling responses to her questions about the relationship after People offered the couple a soft-focus feature on Monday night, in what sure looks like an attempt to get ahead of the story.

Palmeri wrote:

Reached by phone late last month, Axios co-founder JIM VANDEHEI, who also co-founded POLITICO, said he was “pretty removed from who [McCammond] dates.” When pressed, he said he did know “a little bit about it.” He added: “She’s not covering him. Well, maybe she talks about him on TV.”

After Ducklo allegedly threatened Palmeri, Ecarma reports, Psaki and two other administration officials had conversations with Politico brass about the call, agreeing that he would apologize but also criticizing Palmeri “of breaking an off-the-record agreement” with Ducklo by telling her editors about the call. He did eventually apologize. McCammond remains at Axios, covering progressives and Vice President Harris. Her Twitter account is currently set to private.

Biden told his appointees on January 20 that if he were ever to “treat another colleague with disrespect” or “talk down to someone” that he would “fire you on the spot.” For many people in Washington, including journalists who’ve spent four years being lied to and gaslit by the Trump administration, that was a welcome break. Trump blew into town with a gust of lies and left two weeks after his untruths gathered enough force to nearly knock over the US Capitol. So it’s perhaps understandable that journalists gave Biden’s team a break for “Psaki bombs” when she “dunked on” a reporter, just as the Trump administration’s boorishness helped people develop amnesia about just how bad the Obama administration was with the press.

Ducklo, too, had a compelling story to tell outside the hurly burly of everyday politics, having gone through the campaign while battling cancer. It all contributed to an unseemly honeymoon for the new administration among people ostensibly paid to keep them honest.

Ducklo’s meaningless suspension doesn’t suggest there’s much substance to Biden’s supposed “no-assholes” policy. Nor does it address why Psaki, White House director of communications Kate Bedingfield, and senior adviser Anita Dunn focused on Palmeri’s supposed sin of taking notes about a call in which a man in one of the most powerful perches in Washington allegedly threatened to “destroy” her—a remarkable stretch of what the term “off the record” means. Apparently that pledge of respect is decorated with a big ugly asterisk.

For journalists covering the White House, though, that asterisk shouldn’t be necessary to remind them of a bigger truth: Press officers are not your friend. That goes for press officers who behave impeccably, too. Even if Psaki’s team were unerringly great at their jobs, overwhelmngly good for the country, and nothing but noble in their public service, even if they are a welcome break from the mendacity and hostility of their predecessors, even if they were to do stuff that could merit the love and affection of 99 percent of the country, reporters must always, always, be part of the other 1 percent.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.