White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre suffered the first of what could be many terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days as reporters from conservative and liberal outlets as well as the front and back of the room hammered away with questions about the baby formula shortage, inflation, and presidential leadership. For Jean-Pierre, she had little in the way of answers besides lengthy, pre-written notes she used as a heavy crutch.
The AP’s Zeke Miller signaled what was to come as he noted that, moments earlier at a separate White House event, President Biden admitted he wasn’t told of the massive formula crisis until April even though others (and corporate executives) knew for months beforehand.
“So, what is the reason for the disconnect there and is he going to hold anyone accountable,” he asked.
Jean-Pierre mentioned government action from mid-February and patted the administration on the back for their work to supposedly expand production on a dramatic scale.
But CBS’s Ed O’Keefe wasn’t buying any of this, noting Jean-Pierre talked about actions from four months ago but the crisis went on for months since: “When did somebody call the White House to say this is a problem, you guys may need to get involved?”
Jean-Pierre stuck to her notes that, “on day one of the recall, we took action as a whole of government approach” and that Biden personally “understands how difficult this is.” But the usually calm and cool O’Keefe grew agitated (click “expand”):
O’KEEFE: [INAUDIBLE] in February
JEAN-PIERRE: And so, that is what we have been doing.
O’KEEFE: When was someone called here at the White House to say, “this could be an issue that requires Presidential involvement.
JEAN-PIERRE: So, I don't have a timeline on that. All I can tell you as a whole of government approach, we have been working on this since the recall in February.
O’KEEFE: The independent regulatory agency, the FDA, the one questions that have been referred to in the past, is now being embraced as whole of government. Let’s point that out. The other thing: Why wasn’t Abbott invited today?
JEAN-PIERRE: Oh, well, because Abbott, as we know, they agreed on a path to safely re-open the Sturgis facility after safety concerns the FDA called them out on. So, look, we understand Abbott is working hard to get back to safely making infant formula. That process is ongoing...Today is about progress and action we can take to ramp up right now...Look, this meeting was focused on wrapping up production and availability of safe infant formula to American families...So increasing production here at home and importing high quality formula from abroad. We are working with many manufacturers...[T]he actions are making a difference. And so I just want to make sure that we see what this administration has done. This whole of government approach-
O’KEEFE: But don’t you all understand that you’re doing this now on June 1. If he knew about this —
JEAN-PIERRE: No. We have been —
O’KEEFE: — in April —
JEAN-PIERRE: — no, no, no. We have been doing this, a whole of government approach, since the recall. That is what it — and it’s not — but —
O’KEEFE: — yeah, but the Defense Production Act wasn’t invoked until last month.
JEAN-PIERRE: Because we had to make sure —
O’KEEFE: That’s what got things moving.
JEAN-PIERRE: — we had to make sure and really look into what would work and what was the best direction to move forward.
The reliably liberal CNN reporter M.J. Lee took her turn a few minutes later and wasn’t any gentler, demanding to know why “baby formula manufacturers knew that things would be really bad as soon as the Abbott recalls happened, the shutdown of the plant happened...but [Biden] didn’t? Who failed to inform him? Why didn’t he know if they knew?”
Jean-Pierre seemed upstream without a paddle, again sticking to notes. Thankfully, Lee called out her long answer as not having “address[ed] the question.”
NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell tried to help Jean-Pierre, reminding her that “we all understand that government operates at many levels” and “[t]he President’s not read in on every issue,” but they want to know why there was such a delay when all parties now have called it “a crisis” and “there will be future crises” requiring Biden’s direct involvement.
Fox’s Peter Doocy cut to the chase: “[W]ho is the person, in the West Wing, who decided after six or eight weeks that this baby formula shortage was finally something that somebody should tell the President about?”
Obviously, Jean-Pierre didn’t answer and instead said she’ll need “to go back and talk to the President.” Following more meandering, Doocy moved to inflation: “When are you guys going to admit that you were wrong about inflation?”
A flustered Jean-Pierre then offered up this quip that went over like a lead balloon: “No easy questions today. Huh?”
Doocy persisted: “The Treasury secretary says that she was wrong. So why doesn’t anybody here at the White House?”
Jean-Pierre blamed supposedly unforseen events like COVID-19 and Russia, so Doocy gave her one more chance to give a different answer (which she didn’t): “Just so that I understand the treasury secretary says that she was wrong but the White House was not wrong about inflation.”
CBSNews.com’s Kathryn Watson followed Doocy and, after a few gun questions, she too had baby formula questions, including one about whether Biden’s been “satisfied with the FDA’s response in this crisis.”
Without flinching, Jean-Pierre said he has been and “still [has] confidence in the FDA.”
Near the end, Real Clear Politics’s Philip Wegmann had biting questions on leadership and how Biden’s ideas to combat inflation aren’t new (click “expand”):
WEGMANN: [M]y more general question, which is, I think at the heart of a lot of things that you’ve asked is, how serious does an issue have to be before it’s brought to the President’s attention?
JEAN-PIERRE: So let me just lay this out because I think this is really important. And I’ve said this multiple times, the reason that we are where we are with Abbott in this facility...because of our involvement in what we were able to do. Look, the market, there are four manufacturing facilities — companies, just four....From the moment that we heard of the recall in February, on February 17th, as I’ve laid out, we took action....The President deals with multiple crises. His administration deals with multiple crises. When we walked in a little bit over than a year ago, we talked about the economy. We talked about COVID. We talked about climate change. All of the things that the President attacked and dealt with and his White House dealt with on all at once. And we have seen his comprehensive plan when it comes to COVID and what we’ve been able to do and getting people vaccinated and boosted. We see where the economy is currently. Now we’re in this transition. All of those things are important to note that there are always multiple crises happening that we are dealing with all at once.
WEGMANN: Okay. And then on the Wall Street Journal op-ed. In that essay, the President reiterated that he supports the independence of the Federal Reserve. He called on Congress to pass tax credits. And he also called again for changes to the tax code to bring in more revenue, to drive down deficits. Correct me if I’m wrong, but these proposals aren’t exactly new. I mean, we’re coming up on a 40 year high of inflation. Does he have anything else?
JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, I’m happy — and I’m happy to lay that out. Lay that out as how he’s fighting inflation. Look, as you just said —
WEGMANN: But is he planning anything new or [inaudible] to do anything about it?
JEAN-PIERRE: Well, I mean, let me just tell you what we have been doing, and what we will continue to do, and what we know is important in order to fight inflation....This is a place where we have made notable progress that we’ve talked about. More than $1.5 trillion in reduction in the deficit this year alone. And we want to keep making that progress, so that’s not going to end there. And there’s other ways too. The lowering cost of high speed internet for 50 million families. Building more than one million new affordable homes to help bring housing and rent prices down. Helping America’s farmers increase crop yields to help bring down food prices. And fixing our supply chains to reduce the cost of moving goods to shelves and to families and homes. And we’re always looking at other things that we can do. But these are actually action items that we have taken that are not small. That shows the work that this President has done to really attack inflation. We understand that there’s more work to be done. We understand what families are feeling right now. But we are doing the work to try and address this.
To see the relevant transcript from June 1's briefing (including an O’Donnell-like cleanup assist from The Washington Post’s Tyler Pager on inflation and whether anyone has “regrets”), click here.