White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki has further inflamed the row over one of her subordinates' foul-mouthed threats to a reporter for doing her job.
Psaki made a new series of gaffes at a Friday press briefing that the one-week suspension handed to TJ Ducklo was a "serious punishment" — despite President Joe Biden's inauguration day pledge to fire anyone "on the spot" if they showed such "disrespect".
Ducklo's threat to "destroy" news website Politico reporter Tara Palmeri for asking about his romantic relationship with Axios journalist Alexi McCammond "doesn't meet our standard, it doesn't meet the president's standard," she said.
"It was important that we took a step to make that clear and that included not just an apology directly from him and apologies directly from us at the highest levels there, but also a step to suspend him for one week without pay," Psaki added. "That, in our view, was an important step to send the message that we don't find it acceptable."
As well as threatening to end Palmeri's career, Biden's former election press chief Ducklo also accused her of jealousy, claiming she knew another colleague wanted to "f**" McCammond rather than her.
Psaki, who earned a reputation for cluelessness when she did the same job for former president Barack Obama's administration, suggested that Ducklo's comments had merely made Palmeri "uncomfortable"
"No one wants anyone to feel uncomfortable to be put in an uncomfortable position and that's not behaviour that we will tolerate," the spokeswoman said. "So those were the steps that were taken and we felt it was a serious punishment."
And Biden's mouthpiece appeared to excuse Ducklo's behaviour as the result of a "heated conversation about a story related to his personal life".
In fact McCammond continued to report on Biden and his running-mate Kamala Harris for Axios after beginning her relationship with Ducklo in November — a clear conflict of interest.
Even pro-Democrat TV news network CNN's White House reporter Kaitlan Collins took Psaki to task over Ducklo's threatening and offensive language.
"It wasn't just a hostile conversation," Collins stressed. "the language... is arguably or even not arguably sexist."
Psaki also squirmed when grilled over why Ducklo was only suspended when the incident was made public — when Politico protested "immediately".
"There were conversations that occurred with the reporter, as well as editors at Politico immediately after the conversation occurred," Psaki said. "That was what we felt was appropriate at the time".
Psaki also insisted that she took the decision to suspend Ducklo in consultation with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, and never discussed the incident with Biden.
The president has been accused of hypocrisy for not immediately sacking Ducklo, in line with a warning he issued at his inauguration on January 20, claiming he was drawing a line under his predecessor Donald Trump's frequent Twitter attacks on opponents and critics.
"I am not joking when I say this, if you are 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. "On the spot. No ifs, ands or buts. Everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity. That's been missing in a big way the last four years."© REUTERS / KEVIN LAMARQUE
Ducklo's poor health has also been cited as a reason for Biden failing to fire him immediately. The former advisor announced in December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in the metastatic, or spreading, fourth stage and was having treatment. But he continued to work as national press secretary for Biden's election campaign before taking up his job on the White House press team.