WASHINGTON — President Biden refused to take reporter questions at a St. Patrick’s Day meeting with visiting Irish leader Leo Varadkar.
The media duck came despite press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre a day earlier attempting to quell a reporter outcry over the lack of a joint press conference by saying Biden might do so.
The 80-year-old president smiled and raised his eyebrows as he ignored shouted questions in the Oval Office while sitting alongside Varadkar — as press wranglers bellowed “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 far fewer interviews and press conferences than his recent predecessors and his engagement with reporter questions often are fleeting — stoking frustration among news outlets.
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 dearth 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.
A chorus of other journalists in the room chimed in to note Biden often refuses questions in those venues as well.
“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 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 that 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 a 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 — one fewer than the 10 he announced — 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.