Members of the White House press corps protested to press secretary Jen Psaki Tuesday after President Biden declined to take questions during the public portion of his sitdown with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson — even after Johnson showed up Biden by calling on two British reporters to quiz himself and the US president.
After a brief conversation for the cameras during which the two leaders bonded over their shared love of train travel and Johnson thanked Biden for hosting him, the prime minister asked: “I think — would it be OK if we just have a couple of questions? Just a — just a couple of questions.”
“Good luck,” Biden said breezily.
Johnson first called on Harry Cole of the Sun newspaper, who asked Biden about the prospect of a UK-US trade deal following the completion of Brexit as well as the status of Anne Sacoolas, a US government employee who killed 19-year-old motorcyclist Harry Dunn in a wrong-way crash in England in 2019.
“What possible justification is there for Anne Sacoolas not to be extradited to the United Kingdom to face justice over the death of Harry Dunn?” asked Cole.
Biden initially responded that the case “is being worked on” before later admitting “I don’t know the status of that case right now.”
On Tuesday, Dunn’s family announced that a civil case filed against Sacoolas in Virginia federal court had been “resolved”. A criminal case is pending against her in Britain, though successive US administrations have declined to extradite her to that country, citing diplomatic immunity.
The second questioner, Beth Rigby of Sky News, asked Biden about issues concerning the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and their threat to a potential trade deal. The UK has chafed at trade arrangements that have imposed checks on goods coming to Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain. Those arrangements were agreed to in order to keep an open land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — a key issue in the ongoing peace process there.
“On the deal with the UK, that’s continuing to be discussed,” Biden said. “But on the [border] protocols, I feel very strongly about those. We spent an enormous amount of time and effort in the United States [on the 1998 Good Friday agreement]. It was a major bipartisan effort made. And I — I would not at all like to see — nor, I might add, would many of my Republican colleagues like to see — a change in the Irish courts that — the end result [would be] having a closed border again.”
After Johnson expressed that his government did not want to undermine the Good Friday agreement, White House aides — known as “wranglers” — began shouting and ushering reporters out of the Oval Office as they tried to throw more questions at the pair. One correspondent, Ed O’Keefe of CBS News, asked Biden about the ongoing migration crisis at the southern border.
“Violence is not justified,” the president responded as the last of the press corps were ushered outside. However, O’Keefe claimed he was unable to hear the answer due to the shouting of the wranglers.
“That’s absurd,” one reporter groused as they left the executive mansion. “Two British reporters get questions and we don’t get anything.”
CBS News Radio White House correspondent Stephen Portnoy reported that the members of the editorial pool immediately went to Psaki’s office to complain “that no American reporters were recognized for questions in the president’s Oval Office” as well as that the shouting wranglers had prevented anyone from understanding the answer to O’Keefe’s question.
“Psaki was unaware that the incident had occurred, and suggested she was not in position to offer an immediate solution,” reported Portnoy. “Your pooler requested a press conference. Psaki suggested the president takes questions several times a week.”
In fact, Biden has not taken questions about a number of issues that have come up in recent days, including the ongoing diplomatic row with France over the strategic alliance between the US, the UK and Australia; and the admission by the Pentagon last week that a drone strike in the final days of the Afghanistan withdrawal killed 10 innocent people — including an aid worker and seven children.