Chaos swirling since Biden’s debate flub is causing cracks in a White House known for discipline

Jul 9, 2024, 4:00 PM | Updated: 8:52 pm

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during a press briefing at the White House, T...

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, July 9, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Internal drama. Leaks. Second-guessing. The pressure and chaos swirling since Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance is causing cracks in a White House that until now had been marked by discipline and loyalty.

For three-plus years, the Biden administration has been mostly a restrained and staid operation, defined more by an insistence on showcasing policy and an avoidance of palace intrigue. Aides generally kept any criticism of their boss or their jobs out of the public eye. Not lately, though.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reflected Tuesday on the extraordinary moment for the president and his team, as questions about the 81-year-old’s age and mental capacity threaten to torpedo his reelection dreams. “It has been an unprecedented time,” she said of scrutiny of the president. “We are meeting a new moment that has never really existed before.”

Biden’s shaky June 27 debate performance has led to an unusually public blame game, leaks of private phone calls between the president and Democrats and questions about his son Hunter Biden’s presence at the White House. It has prompted current White House officials to anonymously vent their concerns about Biden’s ability to do the job and even led to the departure of a radio journalist after details emerged the Biden campaign had fed her and another reporter interview questions.

Not to mention all the drama playing out on Capitol Hill, where a handful of House Democrats have publicly called for Biden to step aside and there is closed-door hand-wringing by others over whether to publicly come out against the president as party leaders try to bring members to heel.

Biden has been adamant that he is not leaving the race, and the chorus of criticism may be dying down, but it’s not clear yet whether the White House drama has been a momentary lapse or will continue as the nation barrels toward the 2024 election.

Andrew Bates, a senior deputy press secretary, said Biden had “restored compassion, honesty, and competence to the Oval Office” and built the most diverse administration in history.

“As President Biden has fought for and delivered the strongest record of any modern administration, there wasn’t a single week that Washington didn’t doubt him and his team,” Bates said. “The staff are deeply proud of him and each other and know the key is to focus on the work and the American people, not the noise.”

The buttoned-up vibe at the White House under Biden has been intentional — he wanted his administration to be viewed as a return to normal governing operations after the leaky Trump White House, when half-baked policies ended up on the front pages and details of private meetings appeared in public sometimes while they were still underway.

It was also reflective of the deep loyalty of Biden’s inner circle, where many top advisers have worked with the president for decades.

Biden’s debate performance prompted a surprising amount of public criticism from some of his biggest fans, including former White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, who was on a cable TV panel immediately after the faceoff.

“It was a really disappointing debate performance from Joe Biden. I don’t think there’s any other way to slice it. His biggest issue was to prove to the American people that he had the energy, the stamina — and he didn’t do that,” she said on CNN.

After Biden’s interview on ABC, meant in part to show he can talk off the cuff, former White House communications official Michael LaRosa posted withering public criticism: “Just when you thought the President’s communications teams had lost all of their credibility …. they are racing to the bottom and determined to continue humiliating the President and First Family with misguided and BAD media relations practices that erode his standing day by day.”

In private, aides and allies were quietly shaken over how Biden performed in the debate, and wondered whether the campaign was salvageable, particularly as the negative reviews kept pouring in.

At Camp David the weekend after the debate, Biden’s family — in particular Hunter Biden and first lady Jill Biden — encouraged the president to stay in the race, and questioned whether his staff had prepared him properly. (Biden, for his part, has said firmly the debate disaster was “nobody’s fault but mine.”)

Not long after, the presence of Hunter Biden — awaiting sentencing on three felony convictions in a gun case — at the White House was unsettling to some people, who worried about his influence with his father, according to two Democrats close to the White House who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

And there’s been the second-guessing over the long-term strategy to limit Biden’s public interactions, especially with journalists, under a mandate led by senior aides. Biden has granted fewer interviews than his modern predecessors, and he’s held fewer news conferences than any president since Ronald Reagan.

Bates said the strategy “is and has been for the American people to hear directly from Joe Biden.” He noted Biden gave an interview Monday to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” has taken questions from reporters more than 580 times and travels the country speaking to people directly.

White House officials recently vented their concerns about the president and his abilities in stories spread across national media. One official who raised alarms on The New York Times sounded a little like “Anonymous,” the Trump staffer who signaled discontent about the Trump presidency in a New York Times op-ed and later went public with his grievances.

“This is not like the last administration where we try to find out who is speaking or leaking, that’s not something we do here,” Jean-Pierre said when asked about the official’s comments. “Everybody has their opinion.”

She said she had not heard anyone voice criticisms like those appearing in publications.

In an effort to boost staff morale, Biden chief of staff Jeff Zients urged White House aides last week during an all-staff meeting to tune out the “noise” and focus on the task of governing.

There have also been public missteps. Jean-Pierre told reporters Biden had not been seen by his doctor since his physical, but the president later told campaign workers on a private call that he had been seen by his doctor after he felt sick returning from grueling back-to-back foreign trips.

White House aides declined for days to explain a neurologist’s repeated visits to the White House that had sparked speculation that Biden was getting treatment, and Jean-Pierre misspoke when talking about the issue Tuesday.

On Sunday, a radio host departed her job after news that she and another interviewer at a different station had asked questions of Biden that had been fed to them by the campaign.

The interviews were meant to be part of an effort to restore faith in Biden’s ability not just to govern over the next four years but to successfully campaign, but the revelation only added to criticism that he couldn’t handle unscripted questioning.


Associated Press Writers Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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Chaos swirling since Biden’s debate flub is causing cracks in a White House known for discipline