White House temporarily sidelines press staffer who called female reporter and threatened to “destroy” her

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday publicly reprimanded her deputy for inappropriate comments made to a female reporter on Inauguration Day. 

Vanity Fair reported on Friday that White House deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo had threatened to “destroy” Politico reporter Tara Palmeri, who had inquired about his relationship with Axios reporter Alexi McCammond. McCammond had been covering Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and romantic relationships between reporters and their sources can raise ethical concerns. 

In the off-the-record phone call, Ducklo reportedly made misogynistic comments to Palmeri, accusing her of being “jealous” that another man “wanted to f–k” McCammond and not Palmeri, according to Vanity Fair. The magazine also reported that Ducklo told Palmeri, “I will destroy you” if she proceeded with the story. It also took note of the fact that a male Politico reporter had been assigned to ask Ducklo about the relationship, while Palmeri approached McCammond. Instead of contacting the male reporter, Ducklo contacted Palmeri, according to Vanity Fair.

Psaki admitted Friday that this conversation did not meet “the standard of behavior set out by the president.” That standard was articulated by President Biden on his first day in office, apparently right around the time Ducklo threatened Palmeri. 

“I’m not joking when I say this. 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,” Mr. Biden said. “On the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts. Everybody, everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity.”

It is unclear why it took more than three weeks for the White House to discipline Ducklo. 

CBS News has not been able to independently verify the phone call, but the conversation three weeks ago prompted a series of moves by the White House communications office, two people familiar with the situation told CBS News. 

The next day, January 21, as Mr. Biden issued a range of executive orders, top White House adviser Anita Dunn, Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, and Psaki spent part of the day on the phone with Palmeri’s bosses at Politico and acknowledged that what Ducklo had said was not acceptable. They promised he would apologize, the two people familiar with the discussion said. 

Afterward, “Ducklo sent Palmeri an email stating that he was sorry he lost his cool, but he did not delve into any specifics or apologize for threatening and sexually harassing the reporter,” Vanity Fair reported. 

White House officials complained to Politico leadership that Palmeri had not honored her off-the-record agreement with Ducklo because she discussed the conversation with her editors, according to a source familiar with the situation. But being “off the record” is an agreement between a reporter and source that information from the conversation is not to be published. Politico held to that agreement.

The day after the tense phone call, Palmeri and her colleagues were supposed to host a livestream featuring an interview with White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond. That event had been announced on January 19. 

According to emails obtained by CBS News that were sent the morning of the event, Politico asked if Palmeri could interview Richmond alongside one of her colleagues, Ryan Lizza.

“Let’s do just Ryan,” White House deputy communications director Kate Berner replied, adding that the White House had previously agreed to only one moderator — Lizza.

The video of the event shows that Politico moved ahead with the livestream without Palmeri as interviewer or on the panel, even though Palmeri was listed as a panelist in the event announcement. 

Palmeri declined to comment, referring the request to Politico, which provided a statement from its top editors, saying in part, “No journalist at POLITICO—or any other publication or network—should ever be subjected to such unfounded personal attacks while doing their job.”

Another person familiar with the circumstances said Palmeri had been dropped from the virtual event because she got caught in traffic unexpectedly, and her absence was unrelated to fallout from the exchange with Ducklo a day earlier. 

The first story published on Ducklo’s relationship was not published by Politico, but instead, by People Magazine earlier this week, on Monday night. Many White House staffers shared the article on social media. 

Less than 12 hours later, Politico Playbook reported the People Magazine story had been published after Politico had notified the White House of its intent to publish a story on Ducklo’s relationship. 

An Axios spokesperson told CBS News that McCammond had disclosed her relationship with Ducklo to her editors in November and asked to be taken off coverage of the Biden campaign. She was then reassigned to cover then-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the progressive movement and progressives in Congress.

“Alexi is a valued member of the Axios team,” the Axios spokesperson said, “and we stand behind her and her coverage.”

Ducklo will serve an unpaid weeklong suspension and will no longer work with Politico reporters, according to Psaki. 

The press secretary described the threatening phone call as a “heated conversation about [Ducklo’s] personal life,” and said that Ducklo has since apologized to Palmeri. CBS News’ Weijia Jiang pressed Psaki at the White House briefing about why this disciplinary measure was meted out weeks after the incident occurred — and after publication of the story about the threats. Psaki simply responded, “You’re right.” 

“There were conversations that occurred with the reporter, as well as editors at Politico immediately after the conversation occurred,” Psaki said. “That was how we engaged in a private manner. And, you know, that was, that was what we felt was appropriate at the time.”

Psaki said Friday that Mr. Biden was not involved in the discussion, and that the one-week suspension was approved by White House chief of staff Ron Klain.

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