There was a lot of swooning about the new White House communications team when Joe Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki took to the James Brady briefing room on January 20 - but it’s safe to say the honeymoon is well and truly over after the events of last week.
One of her key lieutenants, deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo, was suspended for a week for threatening a Politico reporter looking into a story about Ducklo’s romantic relationship with an Axios politics correspondent.
According to a soft focus piece in People published last Monday, Ducklo - who is battling lung cancer - has been in a relationship with Alexi McCammond since last November.
But in a Vanity Fair article, it was alleged Ducklo threatened to “destroy” Politico reporter Tara Palmeri when she contacted him about the same story before the People piece went live, indulging in abusive and misogynistic rhetoric in an attempt to intimidate her into dropping the article.
Psaki was already aware of the furor and her team reached out to Politico privately. But she only imposed sanctions when details of the incident were made public in the Vanity Fair article. She suspended Ducklo for a week without pay and described his behavior as “completely unacceptable.”
She said he would no longer work with representatives of Politico. At a press briefing last Friday, Psaki also said this was "an important step to send the message that we don't find it acceptable.”
But this response just didn’t seem tenable or stringent enough to me.
Aside from the impracticality of a key member of the press corps not being able to interact with one of the major outlets covering politics and the White House, the suspension is totally at odds with Psaki’s boss President Joe Biden’s statement on the night of his inauguration.
“If you're ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” said Biden during a swearing-in ceremony for hundreds of staffers.
It seems that noble contract has already been broken, if in this case by extension rather than direct interaction with the President.
As CNN's Jake Tapper noted on Twitter: "I’ve had verbal fights with press secretaries for more than 20 years and no one has ever spoken to me like this. It’s misogyny and emblematic of the double standard women reporters face."
In a statement responding to the controversy, Politico’s editor-in-chief Matt Kaminski and editor Carrie Budoff Brown said: "Politico reporters and editors are committed to forging a professional and transparent relationship with public office holders and their staff and expect the same in return." Precisely.
When Psaki took over, she promised to bring "truth and transparency" to her exchanges with the media and said she has a "deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy."
PR pros called her approach “a breath of fresh air.”
One said, “I was waiting for someone to make the direct comparison,” comparing Psaki to the likes of Trump’s first press secretary Sean Spicer. “It’s good to have communications professionals we can be proud of in the James Brady Briefing Room again.”
She was lauded for “interacting with journalists with respect and actual answers” - something people had “forgotten what this looks like.”
Another praised the “direct questions and answers” and “give and take critical to a functioning democracy.”
Former Republican campaign strategist Steve Schmidt tweeted about Psaki’s first press room briefing: “Incredible to watch. There are no words to describe my feelings of elation to see @jrpsaki behind that podium and the degenerate liars of the last four years relegated to the ash heap of history. It is nice to see integrity restored.”
Schmidt yesterday resigned from The Lincoln Project, which he co-founded, following a scandal about alleged sexual harassment of young men by another of the anti-Trump conservative group’s co-founders, John Weaver.
Press secretaries in the last administration, including Spicer, Sarah Sanders and Stephanie Grisham, were routinely – and rightfully – cited as awful examples of PR best practice and poor role models.
The chattering classes were agog as they followed the soap opera surrounding Trump's first short-lived White House communications director, Jason Miller, and his affair with AJ Delgado, a senior adviser on the 2016 campaign press team, which produced a son she is raising apart from him.
They were shocked when audio of a foul-mouthed conversation between another short-lived White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, and reporter Ryan Lizza emerged in 2017, causing Mooch to lose his job after just 10 days.
Much was - rightly - made of the bullying tone President Donald Trump adopted at press conferences during his tenure, especially when interacting with female reporters.
Trump’s final press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, was also vilified for insulting reporters from the dais and lying to the press corps without taking follow-up questions.
PRWeek was inundated with brickbats from PR pros proclaiming what a terrible example she represented for the profession as the holder of the highest-profile communications role in the world. And rightly so.
But, frankly, none of McEnany’s behavior was as egregious as last week's revelations about what Ducklo did.
The whole affair quickly brought the negativity epitomized by the Trump era that Jen Psaki sought to dissipate back to the White House press room.
Let's apply the same standards here that people called for in the Trump era.
If the Biden Administration is serious about cleaning house, treating people with respect and resuming a more civilized engagement with the Fourth Estate - and if we are genuinely to have communications professionals in the White House “we can be proud of” - I really don’t see how the disgraced deputy press secretary can remain in post.
Ducklo resigned his post Saturday night and released the following statement:
"No words can express my regret, my embarrassment, and my disgust for my behavior. I used language that no woman should ever have to hear from anyone, especially in a situation where she was just trying to do her job. It was language that was abhorrent, disrespectful, and unacceptable.
"I am devastated to have embarrassed and disappointed my White House colleagues and President Biden, and after a discussion with White House communications leadership tonight, I resigned my position and will not be returning from administrative leave.
"I know this was terrible. I know I can't take it back. But I also know I can learn from it and do better. This incident is not representative of who I am as a person, and I will be determined to earn back the trust of everyone I have let down because of my intolerable actions."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also released a statement:
"We accepted the resignation of TJ Ducklo after a discussion with him this evening. This conversation occurred with the support of the White House chief of staff. We are committed to striving every day to meet the standard set by the President in treating others with dignity and respect, with civility and with a value for others through our words and our actions."
It was the right thing to do. It had to be done.