Deputy White House press secretary resigns amid fallout from contentious phone call with reporter

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Deputy White House press secretary TJ Ducklo resigned Saturday amid fallout from a contentious phone call last month in which he berated and threatened a female reporter who was working on a story about a potential conflict of interest stemming from his personal life.

After details from the phone call emerged in news reports Friday, the White House found itself grappling with its first major test of President Biden’s promise to take seriously claims of abusive language and behavior, as well as to drastically shift the tone and culture of government after former president Donald Trump.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki had announced Friday that Ducklo would be suspended for a week without pay, but by Saturday, both senior White House advisers and Ducklo said they had reassessed the incident, leading to his resignation that night.

“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,” Psaki said in a statement, explaining why the White House accepted Ducklo’s resignation.

Ducklo, too, released a statement on Twitter, saying he was “devastated to have embarrassed and disappointed my White House colleagues and President Biden.”

“No words can express my regret, my embarrassment, and my disgust for my behavior,” Ducklo wrote. “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.”

Ducklo angrily lashed out at a reporter who was writing a story that questioned the propriety of his romantic relationship with a political reporter, raising a potential conflict of interest.

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The White House turnabout, which took just over 24 hours and came amid public outcry, was the result of discussions Saturday between top administration officials — including Psaki, communications director Kate Bedingfield, senior adviser Anita Dunn and Chief of Staff Ron Klain — as they began digesting the full ramifications of the incident, according to two senior administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share details of private conversations.

While many of those involved in the discussions had strong personal relationships with Ducklo, they also realized they needed to make a decision that upheld the values that Biden espoused on the campaign trail, one of the officials said. The communications team then spoke with Ducklo later Saturday, and while he wasn’t forced to resign, one person close to the situation said that “we would not have accepted any other outcome.”

“He knew that his conduct was not consistent with the values that President Biden expects from his staff,” said Bedingfield, a longtime friend and mentor to Ducklo. “And so he offered his resignation.”

The fallout from the exchange — which roiled the Biden administration behind the scenes almost immediately — exploded into public view after Vanity Fair reported Friday that Ducklo had used derogatory and abusive language to pressure the reporter, Politico’s Tara Palmeri, to kill the story.

Ducklo’s conduct on the call stood in stark contrast to the edict that had guided Biden’s campaign, one that he reiterated his first day in office, as he swore in nearly 1,000 appointees and staff in a virtual ceremony.

“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,” Biden said at the time. “No ifs, ands or buts.”

And so, on Friday, the White House began trying to publicly reconcile Biden’s comment with Ducklo’s behavior. Psaki announced that in addition to twice apologizing to Palmeri and expressing his “profound regret,” Ducklo had received a one-week suspension without pay and would be prohibited from working with Politico reporters upon his return.

“He’s the first to acknowledge this is not the standard of behavior set out by the president, nor is it the standard of behavior set by me, and I’m his direct supervisor,” Psaki told reporters, adding: “We’ve reached out at every level there to convey our apology and been clear this will never happen again, and it is not going to be tolerated here at the White House.”

Psaki added that Biden was not part of the discussion, and that she decided Ducklo’s punishment, with the approval of Klain. Biden was, however, informed of the unfolding situation Saturday as Ducklo prepared to resign.

In an email to Palmeri shortly before Psaki’s Friday news briefing, Ducklo offered a second, more profuse apology.

“You were simply doing your job and did not deserve to be treated the way I treated you,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided to The Post. “I became emotional and totally lost control because of the personal nature of the story.”


Video: White House aide resigns after threatening reporter (Yahoo! News)

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Yet some Biden allies, including some White House aides, privately griped that Ducklo’s initial punishment was less severe because of the specific role he occupied in the president’s orbit. He is generally well-liked, and he bonded with Biden and other top advisers during the campaign, where he relentlessly fought on Biden’s behalf as a press aide even while battling Stage IV lung cancer.

The White House, Ducklo and Palmeri all declined to comment further.

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The incident began when Ducklo reached out on Jan. 20 to Palmeri, who was planning to write a story about his romantic relationship with Alexi McCammond, an Axios reporter who had covered the Biden campaign.

Their relationship had been an open secret among Washington politerati for several weeks. Ducklo and McCammond have said they both disclosed their romance to their superiors in November, when they started dating.

In attempting to kill the story, Ducklo threatened Palmeri, saying, “I will ruin you on Twitter,” according to several people familiar with the phone call, all speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid details of a conversation intended to be off the record.

Ducklo also, as first reported by Vanity Fair and confirmed by The Washington Post, accused Palmeri of being “jealous” of McCammond because he claimed an unnamed man wanted to have sex with her and not Palmeri.

And he warned Palmeri that she should be careful moving forward with the story because she had “skeletons” in her background.

Palmeri did not record the call but did take notes, which she then passed along to her editor in a memo describing the confrontation, according to someone familiar with the situation.

On Jan. 21, the day after the phone call, senior editors at Politico wrote a letter to Bedingfield, Dunn and Psaki raising concerns about Ducklo’s behavior.

The letter alleged that Ducklo called Palmeri several derogatory names, including “trash.” Ducklo, the editors wrote, said he would “come after” Palmeri and “ruin” her, according to someone familiar with the letter.

The missive prompted several conversations between Politico editors and senior Biden advisers, this person and another person familiar with discussions added. Ducklo was reprimanded and apologized to Palmeri in a brief note the day after their phone call. Other White House officials also apologized to other editors at Politico, these people said.

Yet it was only after the details of the off-the-record call became public on Friday that Ducklo received a harsher punishment — a one-week suspension without pay.

The White House handled the incident privately to respect the off-the-record nature of the call, two senior administration officials said. Psaki defended the White House approach Friday, saying they initially engaged with Politico in “a private manner,” which was “what we felt was appropriate at the time.”

As the White House scrambled on Friday to contain the fallout, former Trump staffers and allies were quick to offer chortling indignation on social media. “Far from being fired on the spot,” former Trump staffer Kelly Sadler wrote in the Washington Times, referring to Biden’s promise.

Several women’s groups, too, weighed in with criticism. “This sort of aggressive behavior is a prime example of toxic masculinity, which has no place in any workplace, let alone the White House,” Christian F. Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women, said in a statement to The Post.

In a statement to The Post, Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, a group that pushes for pro-choice women to be elected, said Ducklo’s comments “are wrong and have no place in political discourse or any work environment.”

Biden cast his candidacy as one that would restore empathy and decency to the White House, with his advisers taking pride in the fact that Trump allies compared him to Mr. Rogers, the Presbyterian minister turned popular children’s show host.

But Biden himself often could become raw and unscripted, creating moments on the campaign trail in which his own temper emerged. In Iowa, he told an 83-year-old farmer that he was a “damn liar” and challenged him to a push-up contest when the man suggested Biden was “too old for the job” and questioned his son Hunter’s business decisions.

There are few people on Biden’s campaign who engendered as much loyalty as Ducklo, who, particularly during his cancer treatment, became a totem for an operation that prided itself on gritty determination.

One of Ducklo’s closest mentors is Bedingfield, who had been his boss at the Motion Picture Association before recruiting him as one of the first staffers on the close-knit campaign.

Just before Election Day, Ducklo drove around to the homes and apartments of various campaign aides and distributed custom T-shirts he had made. Each had the aide’s name across the back — like a jersey — along with the number 20 and “Team of Killers” written on it, a reference to a Trump quote about Biden’s team.

Among reporters — both male and female — Ducklo earned a reputation as a press aide who could be chatty and good-natured, but also one who was quick to anger. He was known for his temper, often turning combative and snappish, especially when managing a story that could cast Biden in a negative light.

As senior White House staffers privately discussed the incident, they considered not just Ducklo’s behavior toward Palmeri, which they all agreed was unacceptable, but also what one senior administration official said were the more complicated nuances of the situation. Ducklo was responding to a story about his personal life, this person said, and attempting to defend his girlfriend, who was also a female reporter and a person of color.

Initially, Psaki and some others resisted the public push to fire Ducklo, arguing internally that part of the promise of the Biden administration was not just to hold themselves accountable but to help their colleagues learn — and grow — from their mistakes.

In many ways, the Biden team is being held to the standard that it set for itself, especially compared to the Trump administration, which was rife with unprofessional behavior. Trump’s first 2016 campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with misdemeanor battery after an altercation with a female reporter. The charges were later dropped.

Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, was known for his venomous tirades against reporters. Trump himself — who famously boasted of kissing and groping women without their consent in an “Access Hollywood” video — has been accused of sexual assault, and in one case rape, by more than two dozen women. And the former president regularly deployed misogynistic and racially inflammatory language while in office.

But by Saturday, both Ducklo and his superiors said they understood that only one outcome remained if they hoped to live up to their boss’s standards: Ducklo had to resign.

“I know this was terrible. I know I can’t take it back,” Ducklo wrote in his statement. “But I also know I can learn from it and do better.”

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

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