White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre floundered under pressure from reporters to explain why President Joe Biden appeared to forget about the death of Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) at an event on Wednesday.
Biden was speaking at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in Washington, D.C., when he repeatedly searched the crowd and asked for Walorski by name.
The Indiana Republican was one of the sponsors of bipartisan legislation to fund the conference. She died along with two of her staffers in a tragic car accident in August. Biden issued a statement at the time mourning her death.
But on Wednesday, the president asked for her at the event.
“I want to thank all of you here … including bipartisan elected officials like Senator Braun, Senator Booker, Representative … Jackie are you here? Where’s Jackie?” Biden said. “I think she was going to be here to help make this a reality.”
The senior moment from the president went viral on social media and fueled questions about his advanced age and ability to serve as the nation’s chief executive.
At a press briefing later, reporters asked Jean-Pierre to explain what happened.
“As you all know, you guys were watching today’s event — a very important event on food security. The president was naming the congressional champions on this issue and was acknowledging her incredible work,” Jean-Pierre said. She added that Biden is scheduled to welcome Walorski’s family to the White House on Friday and said “she was on his mind, she was on top of mind for the president.”
But reporters weren’t buying the White House spin. “He said, ‘Jackie, are you here? Where is Jackie? She must not be here,” ABC White House correspondent Cecilia Vega told Jean-Pierre.
“No, I totally understand. I just — I just explained. She was on top of mind,” the press secretary replied, reiterating that Biden will visit with Walorski’s family later this week.
CNN correspondent Phil Mattingly then asked why, if Walorski’s death and the upcoming visit with her family was “top of mind,” was the president looking for her?
“I don’t think it’s all that unusual,” Jean-Pierre told the press, repeating what she said before.
Unsatisfied, reporters did not drop the issue. CBS News Radio’s Steven Portnoy said he was “compelled to ask … one more time … the question about Congresswoman Walorski.”
“I’m not sure why. Why? Why one more time,” Jean-Pierre said, hiding her frustration behind a smile.
“Frankly, honestly, I think the memory of the congresswoman and history requires some clarity here,” Portnoy said. “Can you explain where the mistake was made? Was the president confused? Was something written in the teleprompter that [he] didn’t recognize?”
Jean-Pierre accused him of “jumping to a lot of conclusions.” Then she repeated the canned line about Walorski being “on top of mind” for Biden.
The Washington Post’s Matt Viser was up next. “I think we all totally get why she’s top of mind. You’ve made that case pretty effectively,” he said. “I think the confusing part is why, if she and the family is top of mind, does the president think that she’s living and in the room?”
“I don’t find that confusing,” Jean-Pierre responded. “I think many people can speak to, sometimes when you have someone on top of mind, they’re on top of mind. Exactly that.”
She rambled on for a bit repeating what she said before. Then, Newsmax correspondent James Rosen quipped, “I have John Lennon top of mind just about every day but I’m not looking around for him anywhere.”
“When you sign a bill for John Lennon as president, then we can have this conversation,” Jean-Pierre snapped back.
Then all hell broke loose. Several reporters tried to speak at once. One shouted over the others, “These moments of confusion are happening with increasing frequency. Americans are watching this and are having concerns, what do you say to that? This is a legitimate question. We need to have some answers.”
Jean-Pierre tried to move on, another reporter asked an unrelated question. But RealClearPolitics reporter Philip Wegmann returned to the Walorski issue by asking if the president would like to take back what he said.
“Just to try one more time, does the president believe that in his reference to the late Rep. Jackie Walorski, who you have said from the podium numerous time that he respects the work she has done and he will be meeting with her family to honor her work, does he believe he handled that reference appropriately? Or is this something that he would like to get back?” Wegmann asked.
“Like to get back what?” Jean-Pierre replied.
“Saying, ‘where is Jackie?'” Wegmann clarified.
The press secretary had enough. “I know this is a question that many of you have had. I have answered it multiple times already in this room and my answer is certainly not going to change,” she told reporters.
“All of you may have views on the way I am answering it. But I am answering the question to the way that he saw it and the way that we see it,” she continued.
“We have to remember as well that this was an important event today. This was an event about food security, this was an event to take the steps to eradicate hunger by 2030. And that is something the president takes very personally. We wouldn’t be doing this event that has not happened since President Nixon, right? That was 50 years ago that an event like this occurred at the White House, so clearly, this is something that is important, so clearly, this is something that he really honors. Both Republican and Democratic congressional champions, when it comes to this issue.
“Again, she was at the top of mind. He is going to be seeing her family in two days to honor her, to honor the work that she has done, and you know, this was a remarkable legacy that she had and we should be honoring that.”