White House Reporters: Biden Handlers’ ‘Credibility’ Is Shot

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

White House correspondents told The Daily Beast they have lost faith in the White House press team’s credibility, with one reporter claiming the saga over a lack of transparency around President Biden’s health shows “how much trust they’ve [the White House] lost with the American people.”

Wednesday’s White House press briefing blew the sensitive issue wide open, with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre fielding sustained questioning about Biden’s health, his jet lag, and his cold that all allegedly affected Biden’s debate performance. It did not matter how old a person was, suffering a confluence of such things, Jean-Pierre said. It takes “a toll.” However, she added, her words should not be seen as an “excuse,” but rather an “explanation.”

Jean-Pierre claimed the White House had been “transparent,” but she refused to say if the White House would release more of Biden’s medical information.

As the White House reckons with the very-real story of Biden’s waning stamina at 81, correspondents are frustrated with the West Wing press team’s years-long insistence that the president has maintained the vigor of the man who joined the U.S. Senate at 31.

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“It doesn’t come across as credible to say that there hasn’t been a change,” said Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times whose July 2022 story on the president’s age helped crack the dam for coverage of the issue.

The reality was further demonstrated by a Times report on Tuesday that detailed recent and more frequent examples of Biden’s cognitive lapses. “They have told us repeatedly over the last few years, ‘He’s really sharp, he’s as sharp as he ever was,’” Baker said. However, “there are moments where he was not always at his sharpest.”

The Times and CNN reported on Wednesday that Biden told a close ally he would consider dropping out of the race if he couldn’t salvage public support following his dire debate performance last week. The White House and the Biden campaign denied the claim. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reaffirmed Wednesday he would not be standing down from the election.

Reporting on anyone’s old age requires extreme sensitivity—particularly when the subject is the leader of the free world. It’s a fact most of the multiple White House reporters who spoke to The Daily Beast acknowledged. Still, even as Biden has claimed questions about his age are fair, the White House has long derided stories on Biden’s age as hit pieces, particularly in light of a Wall Street Journal story last month that reported on his lapses in private meetings. (That story was criticized for its use of Republican sources, though Democrats were also named throughout.)

They’ve even gone as far as to call editors to complain about them, Baker said.

But after the president’s debate performance last week that spurred multiple Democrats to call for him to withdraw from the presidential race, it’s been forced to admit the validity of a story it long tried to put to bed. The fact that the communications team was so insistent on presenting the president as fully acute despite reporting to the contrary, too, has damaged its already-strained credibility to the reporters, potentially beyond repair.

U.S.  White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre holds the daily press briefing in a newly refurbished briefing room at the White House in Washington, U.S. July 24, 2023.

U.S. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre holds the daily press briefing in a newly refurbished briefing room at the White House in Washington, U.S. July 24, 2023.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“This is not the first major thing they have not been forthright about,” another White House reporter told The Daily Beast, citing the White House’s about-face on debt ceiling negotiations last year. “That credibility has been eroding, but this has kind of been a bit of an iceberg falloff. It’s been sorta happening for a while.”

A third reporter was more blunt, texting that he found the press team’s credibility “in already pretty low regard.”

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates highlighted Biden’s interviews this year with outlets such as ABC and Univision and his gaggles with reporters throughout his term.

“Joe Biden has always stood up for the ‘critical’ role of the free press in our society and said that it’s legitimate and reasonable for reporters to cover his age,” Bates told The Daily Beast in a statement. “And we have highlighted that, as he has proven by earning the strongest record of any modern President, Joe Biden is unflinchingly capable and fighting for American families, with sharpness and resolve, every moment of every day.”

The reporters acknowledged the communications team's basic role: to present the president in the best possible light and push back on narratives that don’t accomplish that goal. “In terms of a comms team, they’ve done a helluva job,” the second reporter said.

But even that team, too, has acknowledged in recent days the reality of the president’s current condition, though they’ve tried to use it as an opportunity to praise the president’s policy wins.

A fourth reporter joked, “I’m getting a lot fewer texts from Andrew Bates,” referring to the White House spokesperson.

“Never good to be too available,” Bates said in a statement.

“We get what Americans are feeling,” Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday. “That’s why he’s acknowledging he’s not a young man. That’s why he’s acknowledging he’s a little slower than he used to be in—in walking and not as smooth at speaking.”

That doesn’t explain to reporters, however, why the press team has worked to keep the president so sheltered. The president has stopped for the occasional question as he’s traveled, but his press conferences are far and few between. He took no questions on Monday after he finished his teleprompter-aided speech condemning the Supreme Court’s ruling on presidential immunity. (Though, according to a March report by the University of California-Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, former presidents Donald Trump and George H.W. Bush held fewer solo press conferences.)

The composite image presented by the press team of Biden has therefore appeared removed from the reality of a man whose memory and cognition occasionally drift.

“They’re in [between] a rock and a hard place,” a fourth reporter told The Daily Beast. “Either they’ve been misleading us the whole time, or they’re not in the room to see these things.”

Still, the debate and subsequent fallout have spurred resilience among a press corps that largely, as most journalists tend to do, never took the communications team’s word as gospel.

“What it was was a message that we need to do some more reporting, that we need to get a better picture of where things stand,” Baker said. “The issue that has been raised repeatedly over the last couple of years has not been put to bed.”

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